CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect time references. Obama spoke on Tuesday and Romney spoke on Wednesday.
No one would have thought of the comparison six months ago, before the economic data turned a bit more bright and Mitt Romney went a lot more Right. But based on President Obama’s feisty speech on Tuesday—now widely seen as the opening barrage of the fall campaign—the template for his reelection effort could well be Bill Clinton’s smashingly successful 1996 run against a hapless Bob Dole.
In that campaign, then-President Clinton sought early on to tie the center-right Kansas senator to the then-far-right Newt Gingrich, speaker of the House. In particular he warned voters that “Dole-Gingrich” would cost them large parts of their Social Security and Medicare. The charges stuck in a devastating way, helped by Dole’s decision to run with a zealous supply-sider, former Rep. Jack Kemp.
Now Obama is seeking to join Romney at the hip of another congressman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., whose budget is so tea party-driven that a Congressional Budget Office study showed his planned cuts would effectively eliminate the entire U.S. government except for defense, Social Security, Medicare, children’s insurance, and interest payments.
And the president made a point of going into minute detail about just how far right the axis has shifted since 1996. “Instead of moderating their views even slightly, the Republicans running Congress right now have doubled down, and proposed a budget so far to the right it makes the Contract With America look like the New Deal,” he said to laughter. “In fact, that renowned liberal, Newt Gingrich, first called the original version of the budget 'radical' and said it would contribute to 'right-wing social engineering.' "
Obama went on at length about how the Republicans of previous eras—including the formerly right-wing Gingrich—had been so much more reasonable. “It was Eisenhower who launched the interstate highway system and new investment in scientific research. It was Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency, Ronald Reagan who worked with Democrats to save Social Security. It was George W. Bush who added prescription-drug coverage to Medicare,” the president said.
And then Obama moved in for the kill:
Ryan’s budget “is now the party's governing platform. This is what they're running on,” he said. And “Governor Romney” –it was the first time Obama mentioned him by name – “has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency. He said that he's 'very supportive' of this new budget, and he even called it 'marvelous' -- which is a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget."
There are, of course, more differences than similarities between the electoral environments of 1996 and 2012. The main one is that, despite a spate of good news on the economy, including the return of the stock market to levels not seen since before the 2008 crash, Obama must still run a campaign that ignores a lot of bad news. In particular he must reckon with an unemployment rate that is at 8.3 percent, and now has gone a record 36 months above 8 percent, and is likely to remain higher than it was at Obama's inauguration (7.8 percent) by Election Day. By comparison, Clinton could point to a booming economy—including one of the very few periods of income growth across the board—a shrinking deficit and unemployment at around 6 percent.
Romney, in his riposte on Wednesday to the same group of newspaper editors, reminded everyone of those facts and Obama’s tenure presiding over “the weakest recovery since the Great Depression.” But rather than directly parrying Obama, Romney railed against “arguments that no one is making,” and accused Obama of setting up “a straw man” to divert his record on the economy. And while Obama had the journalists laughing at his mordant wit, Romney’s laugh-o-meter didn’t register quite as high.