I liked President Obama’s Osawatomie speech and recognize the obvious resonances it has with Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech. That connection has been made in multiple places and is well worth reading and reading about. I think Obama's speech was the start of something else too. Something with great potential for Obama’s re-election campaign against Mitt Romney in 2012*. I mean the re-branding of the President as “Barack Obama, regular American.”
I believe that in this campaign Obama will try to present himself as a typical American with a very American story. Even though he has often been defined as an outsider, I don’t think that Obama has ever believed that to be true. Obama considers himself to be quintessentially American. That belief will be easier to spread to the public at large if Obama is running against Willard Mitt Romney.
(Much in the way that Obama’s middle name became a campaign issue, I’m convinced that Romney’s first name will be tossed about and made the subject of jokes. I assume the story about Mitt being named after George Romney’s best friend Willard Marriott is true. That’s not gonna be helpful.)
Obama’s campaign will work hard to present Romney as the embodiment of America’s elite. Romney is, after all, the son of a governor and was born into a highly affluent family. His own professional career has placed him squarely in the 1% as defined by Occupy Wall Street. In 2000, those would have been helpful characteristics but in the midst of our Great Recession, economic privilege is no longer perceived as indicative of inherent merit. Instead, his extraordinary level of privilege is probably a major detriment to Romney’s candidacy.
Obama’s own American story is well known and his recent speech cleverly emphasized his rootedness via his family of regular folks from Kansas. His single mom spent time on public assistance rolls and Obama only became an elite himself through educational attainment. He legitimately is a contemporary Horatio Alger. Even as an adult, his South Side of Chicago bona fides are clearly intact. Describing his career as working for the people of his community as opposed to having the people work for him will be a winning presentation.
And while folks often describe Obama’s rise to national prominence as meteoric, he will be able to define himself as a political plugger compared to Romney. Obama’s political career began in the Illinois State Senate before moving on to the US Senate and then the White House. He has been an elected official since 1997. Obama can reasonably describe himself as having climbed the political ladder, albeit with tremendous speed. Romney’s sole electoral victory was his one term as Massachusetts governor. In just those four years, Romney made many choices he has since disavowed. While I personally believe Romney’s Olympic experience is very impressive, I doubt that he’ll be able to use that time as a proxy for holding office.
There will likely be one other interesting area in which Obama can define himself as average and Romney as exceptional: religion. Obama’s Chicago church experience was a problem for him in 2008 but in 2012 it’ll be a big advantage. Jeremiah Wright is old news and the President has so comfortably and consistently invoked God that his religiosity seems safe, normal and generically American. Romney’s Mormonism makes him suspect in the eyes of many and makes him an outsider in the eyes of many more. I don’t want to link to some of the vicious portrayals of Mormonism in the world of mainstream punditry but it’s very easy to find scary talk about Romney’s church. The ham handed “I’m a Mormon” campaign might have helped had it begun several years ago but in the short term it will likely make Romney (and Jon Huntsman) seem even more suspicious to non-Mormon conservative Christians.
In terms of family, work and faith, Obama can claim common cause with ‘the American people’ in ways that Romney simply can’t. It’s a strange world wherein the half-Black guy with the Arabic name can present himself as more authentically American than the White guy who looks like middle age Superman but I think that’s what we will begin to see in the next few months. Perhaps even more strangely, I think it’s gonna work.
*- I've been asked if any of this applies to the President if Newt Gingrich were the GOP nominee.
2 responses- 1- If Newt's the guy, Obama won't have much to worry about anyway. 2- Yes! Obama's team will paint a picture of the President, First Lady and their two young daughters compared to Newt's 3 marriages, adulterous affairs, Clinton era sexual hypocrisy, the cancer-ridden wife divorce story and late in life conversion to Catholicism. That's a lotta grist for the campaign mill.
Combine that with the difference between making lots of money by writing books about your family and making lots of money by using your government contacts to (almost) lobby for corporations and it's game over.