Back in April, President Obama gave a speech to the American Society of News Editors, where he excoriated Mitt Romney—and the Republican Party—for its adherence to the “roadmap” devised by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan. In the speech, Obama presented the Ryan roadmap as modern Republicanism, distilled to its essence. He attacked the plan for its large, across-the-board tax cuts, its complete extension of the Bush tax cuts, and its plan to privatize Medicare. More importantly, he spelled out the implications of Ryan’s budget: to pay for his tax cuts, the federal government would have to suck the marrow from its social services. Everything from food stamps to Pell Grants would see the chopping block, and the federal government would be reduced to a mechanism for upward redistribution, defended by a standing army.
Since then, Obama has adjusted his message with attacks on Bain Capital and Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, in an attempt to present the Republican nominee as someone who hasn’t passed the basic threshold for competence. But, to a large degree, this was a fool's errand. In the eyes of the public, Romney exudes competence—he looks like a man who could be president, and there’s no way for Obama to counter that perception.
With his speech this afternoon in Cleveland, Ohio—billed as a “reboot” of his campaign message—Obama returned to his first approach. Romney is an avatar for the right wing, and if elected president, he will competently enact their agenda. As he put it, “If you agree with what I described, if you want to give the policies of the last decade another try, then you should vote for Mr. Romney. You should vote for his allies in Congress, you should take them on their word, and they will take America down this path.”
Indeed, the bulk of the speech was devoted to showing the degree to which Romney is committed to Paul Ryan’s vision. In addition to outlining the radical spending cuts of Ryan’s plan, Obama repeatedly tied Romney to the “previous” Republican administration. “This is nothing new,” he said, borrowing from Bill Clinton, “this is the same old, just on steroids.”
By contrast, Obama—again—positioned himself as the keeper of a bipartisan legacy, and reiterated the key fact of this election: It’s an argument about how we’ll improve the economy and move the country forward, and to that end, he praised Democratic and Republican presidents for their commitment to a public/private partnership, and promised to continue that tradition if reelected. He presented his “balanced” and “honest” approach to deficit reduction, and attacked Romney for “giving himself a tax cut” while rendering seniors insecure.
Campaign messages aren’t as important as we like to imagine, but to the extent that they are, this is much more effective than the attack on Bain Capital. The problem with Bain, and even the Massachusetts attacks, is that they are abstract. Most people have little experience with either private equity or Massachusetts, but everyone remembers the Bush years. To (accurately) tie Romney to his predecessor is to ask a question: “Why do we think these policies would work better this time?”
Of course, this has an obvious answer. They wouldn’t. If Obama sticks with this, and continues to hammer Romney on his inaccuracies, distortions, and skewed priorities, then he could move the conversation in his direction, and turn this election into a choice, not a referendum. And if the public begins to sees this as a choice between a future with Obama or a return to Bush, then the president has much better odds for reelection.