More than most elections, the contest for President this fall is likely to be decided less on “wedge issues” – or even candidate positions that are symbolic of who is on whose side – and more on the character and core values of the candidates -- and for that matter on the question of the core values of the society we hope to leave to our children.
Last Friday, speaking to the Democratic Caucus Policy Conference, Vice-President Joe Biden told a story that speaks volumes about the character of Barack Obama.
According to Biden, the day before he ordered the raid that finally stopped Osama Bin Laden, President Obama met with his top national security advisers in the Situation Room. At the close of the meeting, he went around the room asking each person for his or her recommendation on whether to launch the risky nighttime mission.
As it went around the table, Leon Panetta recommended that the President proceed. Most of the others expressed reservations and handicapped the odds of success as only fair. Finally, the President got to Biden who said he recommended not proceeding until two additional steps were taken to enhance the odds.
Then the President stood and told his advisers he would let them know of his decision in the morning.
The next day, as Obama stepped onto his helicopter to leave on a day trip, he turned to his National Security Adviser, Tom Donilan, and issued a simple order: “let’s go.”
Much more was at stake in the Bin Laden mission than success or failure killing or capturing the most wanted fugitive of modern times. In some respects Obama’s Presidency itself was at stake.
To quote Biden, “The President has a backbone like a ramrod.”
Whether or not you like all of his policies – or all of his decisions – it’s hard to argue that Barack Obama is not a tough, decisive guy – a guy who is guided by solid core principles and has a disciplined, laser-focused will. This is not a President that flip-flops in the political wind or is swayed by the last person who talks to him. Above all, Barack Obama is centered. He has a solid core built around strong core values.
America – and the rest of the world – have seen those character traits over and over again during the last four years.
They saw them when he announced his candidacy to become the first African American president of the United States – and then organized the highly disciplined, leave-no-stone-unturned campaign that elected him 2008.
They saw that same inner toughness in his – at the time unpopular -- decision that saved the American auto industry.
In early 2009, Obama simply refused to throw in the towel on health care reform, when the election of Senator Scott Brown made it appear impossible to succeed – and he won.
Later that year, Obama’s force of will guaranteed the passage of Wall Street reform and the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And his willingness to just say no to Republican obstructionism last month by making a recess appointment of Richard Cordray, guaranteed that American financial institutions – for the first time – have a regulator dedicated solely to looking out for the interests of everyday consumers.
Obama has remained determined and unflappable in the face of the toughest economic and political environment in sixty years and has emerged from three years of battle ready to wage a highly organized, focused campaign this fall that will center on most fundamental question facing our society: whether we will have a nation where we look out for each other, and have each other’s back – or a society where we are all in this alone.
Obama intends to make this campaign a battle over core values – a choice between a society where we are all responsible for our future, and for each other – or a society where selfishness is our highest value – where “greed is good.” His campaign will frame the choice before America as whether we have a government dedicated to defending privilege – or one whose mission is giving everyone a fair shot, a fair share, and a guarantee that we all have to play by the same set of rules. His campaign will be about reigniting the values that underlie the American Dream and the hopes of the middle class and all of those who aspire to it. It will be about restoring fairness and opportunity and hope.
Contrast that kind of President – and that kind of campaign – with Obama’s likely opponent, Mitt Romney.
Right after the 2004 election I was riding in a New Jersey taxicab. The driver was a typical male New Jersey cabbie. “So what do you think of Corzine?” I asked.” “Oh, Corzine, tough guy. Like him,” he replied about the then-Senator.
“What do you think of Bush?” I said. “Like him too. Tough guy. Stands up for what he believes,” came the answer.
“How about Hillary Clinton?” I asked. “Tough gal. Like her,” he said.
“What about Kerry?” I asked. “Kerry? Can’t stand him. Flip-flopper—a phony.”
Ideology, policy positions – none of that mattered to this cabdriver who liked Corzine, Clinton and Bush. He wanted a tough, committed leader. But the Republicans had convinced him of its central message – “John Kerry is a flip-flopper—a phony.”
Bush strategist Karl Rove had sold that version of Kerry – a Senator who in fact has strong core values – largely because of his tendency to “Senate-speak.” He also realized that Kerry’s vote for the Iraq War, and then against continued funding in 2004, could be portrayed as the symbolically powerful flip-flop. The icing on the cake was Kerry’s explanation of the 2004 vote: “I voted for it before I voted against it.” Rove illustrated his flip-flop message with an iconic commercial that featured pictures of Kerry windsurfing and tacking one way and then another.
Kerry’s perceived lack of core values was the factor that, more than any other, led to George Bush’s second term as president.
Voters want leaders who believe in something other than their own election. Quite correctly they want leaders with a strong moral center. They want leaders who make and keep commitments to their principles and to other people. And they want to know that the candidates they support are the leaders they will get after the election – not, as John Huntsman said of Romney, “a well-oiled weathervane”.
Romney has never seen a position he couldn’t change if he determined it would be to his advantage to do so. He thinks of politics as a business marketing project, where you say what you think you need to in order to maximize sales. Romney doesn’t think of voters as citizens to be engaged – he thinks of them as customers to be manipulated.
As Massachusetts Governor, Romney was pro-choice – now he is anti-choice.
Romney was the author of the Massachusetts health care plan that in many respects served as the model for Obama’s own health care plan. Now he wants to repeal “Obamacare.”
Romney once refused to sign the “no new tax pledge.” Now he has signed the “no new tax pledge.”
Romney favored extension of the assault weapons ban. Now he opposes extension of the assault weapon ban.
Once he said the TARP “was the right thing to do.” Now he says he opposed it.
Right after the economy collapsed he said he favored an economic stimulus program; now he says he opposed the stimulus bill.
Once Romney said he believed that human activity contributed to global warming; now he says he doesn’t think we know what causes global warming.
One day he was emphatically neutral on Ohio Governor Kasich’s union-busting legislation – that was ultimately “vetoed” by the Ohio voters. The next day he one hundred percent supported that legislation.
Romney is a guy who, when called on his flip-flops and inconsistencies, said: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake.”
The reason Romney is having such a difficult time making the sale in the Republican primary contest is that many Republicans don’t think he has strong core beliefs, don’t trust him and think he’s a phony.
Wait until he has to convince swing voters that he’s anything more than a “vulture capitalist” who will say anything and do anything to make the biggest deal of his life -- the “acquisition” of the government of the United States of America.
But, you say, maybe he will flip-flop back into a more “moderate” Mitt Romney if he becomes President. Don’t bet on it. People who have no core values will sell their services to the highest bidder. Romney’s Presidency has already been sold lock, stock and barrel to the big Wall Street banks, the CEO class, the multi-millionaires who are behind his SuperPac and the Republican Establishment that have financed his campaign.
In fact, throughout his career, Mitt Romney has demonstrated that his only “core value” is his own financial and political success. In Romney’s view, both in politics and in business, every other belief or commitment can be thrown overboard if it weighs him down in his quest for success. And that goes for the people and communities that were impacted by the “creative destruction” of his corporate takeovers and leveraged buyouts at Bain Capital. To him, they were apparently nothing more than “collateral damage.”
In the end, it is likely that the ultimate irony of the Romney campaign will be that his own willingness to toss aside positions and values that might at one time or another have appeared inconvenient, will ultimately weigh him down more than anything else.