One Empty Suit, One Empty Agenda

Romney and Obama reflect the phoniness of modern American politics.

President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney after the debate at the Keith C. and Elaine Johnson Wold Performing Arts Center at Lynn University on October 22, 2012 in Boca Raton, Florida.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Jan. 18, 2015, 7:23 a.m.

One man is an empty suit. The oth­er has an empty agenda. One man says he’ll be the cham­pi­on of the poor—and nobody be­lieves him. The oth­er says he’ll be the cham­pi­on of “middle-class eco­nom­ics”—and nobody thinks he’ll get it done.

Mitt Rom­ney and Barack Obama. These two de­cent and am­bi­tious men are linked by sad cir­cum­stance: Both squandered their op­por­tun­it­ies to trans­form the Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al sys­tem—and now rep­res­ent the ut­ter phoni­ness of it.

Start with Rom­ney: The former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor once rep­res­en­ted the big-tent, can-do middle of the polit­ic­al spec­trum, com­bin­ing the GOP eth­ic of re­spons­ib­il­ity and the Demo­crat­ic eth­os of com­pas­sion to ex­pand health in­sur­ance cov­er­age in the lib­er­al-lean­ing state.

He re­in­ven­ted him­self for the 2008 and 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, chan­ging po­s­i­tions on many is­sues to ap­peal to a GOP primary elect­or­ate mov­ing right­ward. In 2012, his gen­er­al elec­tion cam­paign against Obama was a dis­aster. Ac­cord­ing to New York Times colum­nist Ross Douthat:

There was the thread­bare policy agenda, linked to a self-de­feat­ing the­ory that the elec­tion would be de­cided by the un­em­ploy­ment rate alone. There were the vari­ous rich-guy dis­asters that played in­to the White House’s ef­fort to por­tray him as the can­did­ate of the richest 0.47 per­cent. And most un­for­giv­able, giv­en his prom­ise of a ruth­less private sec­tor com­pet­ence, there were the polling fail­ures and ground game de­bacles that let Obama coast to vic­tory.

Rom­ney wants to run again. The 3.0 ver­sion would fo­cus on three areas: for­eign policy, so­cial mo­bil­ity, and erad­ic­at­ing poverty. “Un­der Pres­id­ent Obama,” Rom­ney told GOP lead­ers on Fri­day night, “the rich have got­ten rich­er, in­come in­equal­ity has got­ten worse, and there are more people in poverty than ever be­fore.”

Right on those par­tic­u­lar facts, Rom­ney is the wrong can­did­ate for a 2016 mes­sage aimed at the 47 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans he in­fam­ously dis­missed in 2012. His private char­it­able work is laud­able, but voters will look to his pub­lic re­cord. “For the former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor, the ques­tion that will come quickly is wheth­er he has the cred­ib­il­ity, giv­en his past cam­paigns, to per­suas­ively de­liv­er that mes­sage,” Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist Dan Balz wrote. “In oth­er words: Is this the au­then­t­ic Mitt Rom­ney?”

Obama’s au­then­ti­city prob­lem is dif­fer­ent in kind. Voters are less con­cerned about wheth­er the pres­id­ent has an ideo­lo­gic­al core—he’s a lib­er­al—than they are about his abil­ity to get things done.

Mod­er­ate Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ent voters were drawn to Obama’s prom­ise to change the cul­ture of Wash­ing­ton, to rid the cap­it­al of pet­ti­ness and grid­lock in or­der to ad­dress big prob­lems. He aban­doned that prom­ise early in his pres­id­ency, blam­ing the in­transigence of Re­pub­lic­ans who, be­fore his el­ev­a­tion, had made no secret of their in­transigence. Lib­er­al voters thought he tried too hard to ac­com­mod­ate Re­pub­lic­ans. Bey­ond the Af­ford­able Care Act, they saw few big gains in the pro­gress­ive agenda.

Across the board, voters don’t doubt Obama’s sin­cer­ity as much as they do his ef­fect­ive­ness. He makes prom­ises he can’t keep. He’s a weak lead­er, a ma­jor­ity of voters tell poll­sters, and he can’t be coun­ted on to unite Con­gress and the coun­try be­hind a sens­ible agenda.

That is the con­text be­hind Obama’s latest le­gis­lat­ive flour­ish to be un­veiled in the State of the Uni­on ad­dress Tues­day. He wants Con­gress to raises taxes on the wealthy by $320 bil­lion over the next 10 years to pay for new pro­grams aimed at the lower- and middle-class fam­il­ies, a plan the White House pub­lic re­la­tions team calls “middle-class eco­nom­ics.”

Obama knows it won’t pass Con­gress, but that’s not the point for him. The pres­id­ent’s sin­gu­lar mis­sion is to frame the 2016 elec­tion in a way the hurts Re­pub­lic­ans and helps his leg­acy. (On the flip side, the GOP strategy for 2016 is to pass wedge-is­sue bills they know Obama won’t sign.)

Wheth­er the is­sue is sin­cer­ity or ef­fect­ive­ness, the bot­tom line is that Rom­ney and Obama can’t be trus­ted to de­liv­er. The In­ter­net has demo­crat­ized in­form­a­tion, mak­ing it easi­er for Amer­ic­ans to spot a phony, which is one reas­on the pub­lic’s faith in polit­ics and gov­ern­ment is tum­bling. Amer­ic­ans crave au­then­t­ic lead­er­ship—hon­est people who work to­geth­er and change things for the bet­ter.

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