Mitt Romney and Barack Obama: Two Competing Visions of the Status Quo

After winning the New Hampshire Republican Primary last week, Mitt Romney began to pivot to the general election, calling President Barack Obama someone who wants to “turn America into a European-style entitlement society.”

An election between Obama, the half-black son of a single mother who began his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, and Romney, the scion of a prominent Mormon family who made a quarter-billion dollar fortune working in the private equity markets, will likely be filled with culture-war rhetoric similar to Romney’s speech in New Hampshire.

However, Obama, a Harvard JD, and Romney, a Harvard JD/MBA, are more similar than they appear. Rather than looking to Europe, Obama’s biggest domestic policy inspiration has been Romney himself, and rather than being a potentially re-aligning election between two competing visions of America’s future, an Obama/Romney contest will be a vicious debate between two competing visions of the status quo.

Despite coming into office behind a bold wave of campaign rhetoric promising “change,” Obama hasn’t deviated much from the Washington political consensus, governing as a centrist for most of the past four years.

He increased the number of troops in Afghanistan, fought tooth-and-nail against ending the American presence in Iraq, and heightened the rhetoric around Iran’s pursuit of nuclear energy. The former constitutional law professor, after campaigning against the Bush administration’s excess use of executive power, has dramatically increased the power of the presidency, declaring the right to kill an American citizen anywhere in the world based purely on his say so.

He kept two of Bush’s main financial advisors, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, to help manage the country’s recovery from the collapse of the housing bubble, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the country’s “too big to fail” banks have gotten even bigger and more powerful since 2008.

Most revealing of all, despite having a 60-vote super-majority in the Senate in 2009, Obama worked furiously to stop the public option from being part of “Obamacare,” preferring the system of universal health coverage Romney instituted as the governor of Massachusetts in the middle of the decade. Instead of the European model of buying health insurance directly from the government, he agreed to an individual mandate that will force Americans to buy coverage from private companies.

And while many Republican voters think the Affordable Care Act is an unconstitutional expansion of government power, it is clear Romney doesn’t share their philosophical objections. Instead of explicitly disavowing his Massachusetts model, he has stuck to a federalist critique of the ACA. 

Over the last few years, a new wave of populist movements, from the Tea Party on the right to Occupy Wall Street on the left, has emerged to combat the growing intersection of public and private power in Washington, D.C.

But in a election process still dominated by the ability to raise prodigious sums of money, as Romney showed when a PAC that supported him flooded the airwaves in Iowa with TV ads that sunk Newt Gingrich’s campaign, the presidential candidates for both parties are consensus-minded centrist politicians who have shown little desire to challenge entrenched interests in their careers. 

Henry Kissinger once famously said that “academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” With MSNBC calling Romney a job-killing capitalist vulture while Fox News assails Obama as an anti-American job-killing European socialist, that quote has never seemed truer.

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army