Barack Obama, circa 2008, may have just clinched the Republican nomination for President in 2012. Mitt Romney doesn’t look like Barack Obama. They don’t come from the same background. And they don’t share a governing philosophy or a policy platform. But when Romney claimed his title as presumptive nominee Tuesday, after sweeping five primary states and all but vanquishing Newt Gingrich, the former Massachusetts governor made clear his belief that Obama’s 2008 message of hope for American rebirth could work again in 2012.
Back in 2008, Obama promised to end the malaise and economic decline of the Bush years. In 2012, Romney is promising an end to the malaise and decline of the Obama years. “America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this,” Barack Obama said in his convention speech in 2008. “A better America begins tonight,” Romney said Tuesday night.
“As I look around at the millions of Americans without work, the graduates who can’t get a job, the soldiers who return home to an unemployment line, it breaks my heart,” Romney continued, echoing another passage from Obama’s convention speech. “This does not have to be. It is the result of failed leadership and of a faulty vision,” Romney said.
Obama had put it this way four years ago in a Denver stadium. “Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less,” he said. “More of you have lost your homes and even more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay, and tuition that’s beyond your reach. These challenges are not all of government’s making. But the failure to respond is a direct result of a broken politics in Washington and the failed policies of George W. Bush.”
Romney even went so far to acknowledge Obama’s convention speech as a touchstone. “Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change,” Romney said, in reference to the ostentatious set that served as a backdrop in Denver. “But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?” Then the presumptive Republican nominee announced his intention to unite the country.
The parallels do not end there. In his convention speech, Obama accused his Republican opponent of meaning well, but not being up to the task. “It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care,” said Obama. “It’s because John McCain doesn’t get it.” The core of Romney’s critique of Obama has struck a similar tone. “I don’t think it’s because he’s a bad guy,” Romney says these days of Obama. “I just think he’s over his head and doesn’t have the experience to know how what he is doing is harming the American people.”
Of course all presidential campaigns, just like all comedies and tragedies, share a set of themes. It should come as no surprise, for instance, that Romney called for unity last night, in much the same way that Obama called for unity in 2008, nor should it shock anyone that both men go heavy on the patriotic readings of American exceptionalism. “We will restore the promise of America only if we restore the principles of freedom and opportunity that made America the greatest nation on earth,” said Romney.
Nor is it remarkable that both also claimed that their opponents would run nasty campaigns to cover up weaknesses. “If you don’t have a record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone people should run from. You make a big election about small things,” said Obama in 2008. “Because he has failed, he will run a campaign of diversions, distractions, and distortions,” Romney said Tuesday of the President.
But the remarkable similarities go beyond just rhetoric. They reflect a remarkably similar political environment that has persisted since 2008. The American people are approaching their fourth election cycle since 2006 with clear dismay over the direction of the country and a clear hunger for someone to fix it. The similarities also reflect the Romney campaign’s determination to remind the American people of just how much Obama promised back in 2008, when few foresaw the economic collapse that preceded his election and has defined his time in office. The Romney campaign team believes that little bad can come from reminding the American people of the hope and change message Obama offered in 2008.
And as Obama’s success in 2008 proved, there is little immediate danger in over-promising a return to prosperity during an election season. The problem comes only when you have to run for reelection.