Neil Macdonald: Obama and Romney, two peas in a pod?

Scratch the surface and what you find is two moderates who have moved to the right, Neil Macdonald writes.

In a little more than four months, Americans will choose their next president.

Wow. When I write that down, it seems imminent and important, rather than the annoying background noise the election campaign here has become.

Even the cable news channels, which have a vested interest in making everything sound exciting, seem to be having a hard time working up much enthusiasm.

Truth is, a sensible, well-informed voter would have to concentrate hard to distinguish between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, beyond the obvious difference in pigmentation.

They strive to portray themselves as utter opposites. But the truth is they aren't so different at all. Americans are being offered what the dystopic comedian George Carlin used to call "the illusion of choice."

 Immigration reform is the latest in a long list of examples.

Obama made a splashy announcement last week about issuing temporary permits to illegal (mostly Hispanic) immigrants who came here as children. The implicit message is Obama humane, Romney heartless.

In fact, the policy is pretty much a lift from what some prominent Republicans have advocated, Furthermore, Obama has been much harsher on illegal immigrants in the past four years than his predecessors were, deporting waves of Mexicans, including Americanized children and parents of young American-born citizens.

Change was in the air

Obama's metamorphosis has been remarkable. Four years ago, he was just about a cult figure, a sip of sweet, fresh water for moderate voters who were fed up with eight years of the Bush administration's obsessively secretive, spend-happy, militaristic, supposedly free-market governance.

Barack Obama, leaving Hope behind? (Henry Romero / Reuters)

Obama was going to change everything. He campaigned on narrowing presidential power, making rich Americans pay a greater share of taxes, regulating Wall Street's excesses, closing the controversial Guantanamo Bay facility for al-Qaeda detainees, making health care affordable for all, and famously offering "hope" to a generation that had lost it.

"The time has come to set aside childish things," he declared as he was inaugurated. As it happened, the childish things turned out to be most of his big election promises.

Obama squandered the congressional majority his party achieved in 2008 by trying to compromise with Republicans who followed a brutally simple strategy of saying no to everything.

Obama not only agreed in negotiations to extend what he liked to call George W. Bush's regressive tax cuts, he expanded on them by implementing a payroll tax cut and boasted about being a tax-cutter.

He did manage, just before the Democrats effectively lost Congress in 2010, to push through a health-care law.

But it turned out to be directly modeled on traditional Republican thinking (most prominently Mitt Romney's health-care act when he was governor of Massachusetts). Republicans, of course, have now turned against it.

Droning on

As for curtailing prescription drug costs, when Big Pharma threw itself in front of Obama's promise to re-import American-manufactured drugs from abroad, where they are sold for a fraction of the prices Americans pay, he folded.

In an email obtained by the New York Times recently, one of his top advisers reassured drug industry lobbyists that the White House had "made decision based on how constructive you guys have been, to oppose importation."

The Guantanamo Bay detention centre, an icon of the so-called war on terror in the Bush years, remains open. Its inmates, after a decade of incarceration, are still being tried by military commissions, contrary to Obama's promise of civilian trials.

Obama's national security approach has been to greatly intensify secret drone strikes, which often kill civilians as well as their nefarious targets.

John Yu, the former justice department lawyer who concocted the Bush administration's rationalization for torturing prisoners, noted acidly in a recent newspaper column that "Mr. Obama has avoided these vexing detention issues simply by depriving terrorists of all of their rights — by killing them."

Well, yes.

What's more, on what is perhaps the most pressing issue America faces, the runaway unfunded liability of its ballooning social entitlements, Obama either has no idea what to do or is just refusing to say.

Remember, this was the sober, no-drama president who was going to tell the public what it needed to hear, not simply what it wanted to hear.

Sensibly, Obama no longer employs the old "Hope" slogan, having changed it to an even more meaningless "Forward."

Such a time

Then there's Mitt Romney, who seems to change his slogan every week.

Mitt Romney, where does he stand now? (Steve Nesius / Reuters)

He says he's against "Obamacare," principally because of its bedrock feature, known as the individual mandate. It's an insult to individual choice and freedom, say the Republicans.

Individual mandate is the principle that everyone must buy some sort of insurance, in order to create a strong enough revenue base to insure the entire population.

Emails uncovered by journalists, though, have shown that while he was creating "Romneycare" in Massachusetts, Romney fought particularly hard to embed, yes, individual mandates.

Romney, the man who once embraced alternative energy (as did Obama during his first presidential campaign), is now a self-proclaimed climate change skeptic. Drill, drill, drill, and add more pipelines, is the Republican message — much like Obama's.

The Republican contender constantly stresses his brilliant business career, but is no more inclined than Obama to say what he would do about the nation's sorry finances.

He was once pro-choice. Now he’s not.

He is, in other words, a moderate who has moved right, just like Barack Obama. The only real difference is that Obama is a known quantity as president. Romney isn't.

Looking back, 2008 was such a time: The epic nomination battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, the Sarah Palin phenomenon, the political awakening of an entire generation, the suggestion of a new era, the wild national rejoicing at the historic outcome at the polls.

One of the few not caught up in it all was Ralph Nader, the old consumer advocate. He's always insisted that there isn't a "dime's worth of difference" between the two parties.

Hard to dispute that, in retrospect.


  • An earlier version of this article said that Mitt Romney was once an advocate of gay rights, including gay marriage, and that now he is not. Romney has advocated for gay rights in the past but he has never backed the idea of same-sex marriage.
    Jul 20, 2012 3:40 PM ET