When President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney square off at the debate podium in the fall of 2012, it might be harder than you think to tell the two of them apart.
They're both Harvard lawyers. They're both millionaires and devoted family men. As a college student, Romney completed a requisite Mormon mission. Obama famously got his start as a community organizer—the rough equivalent for young, politically ambitious African Americans.
Both look like presidents straight out of central casting—tall, trim and tan—with enviable salt-and-pepper gray hair connoting vitality and wisdom. Neither man has ever served in the military. Although their personal histories certainly differ, they've got more in common than meets the eye.
Unofficially kicking off his presidential bid this week with a national tour promoting his new book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney will begin a campaign to portray Obama as an apostate on the altar of American exceptionalism. He'll offer himself as the businessman's special—a steady alternative to both Obama and shrill populists in his own party, like Sarah Palin.
But looking beyond message and toward his policy prerogatives, Romney will be challenged in distinguishing himself from Obama. Based on his record, and the president's, it's not that easy to identify the areas where Romney can fundamentally or credibly argue with what Obama is doing.
Bending the Cost Curveball
Nowhere does Romney's résumé match Obama's more than their approach to health care reform. Plugging the virtues of his own health care fix four years ago in the Wall Street Journal, Romney noted that "someone has to pay for health care that must, by law, be provided." The formula, he explained, was expansion of Medicaid, providing subsidies to those who can't otherwise afford their own insurance, and for everyone else, an individual mandate, writing that "we insist that everyone purchase health insurance from one of our private insurance companies."
Obama wants for-profit insurers to add more than 25 million new customers. If Romney plans on parroting the talking point that Obamacare amounts to a "government takeover," he'll have to explain to voters why he signed on to the idea first.
Romney is widely regarded as the most commerce friendly of the 2012 presidential contenders. A highly successful CEO of Bain Capital, he was credited with turning the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics around from a money loser to a money maker. His biggest selling point is his steady fiscal hand. But what would he do differently than Obama to try to manage the recession?
In USA Today, Romney recently outlined a 10-point plan for economic recovery—and it's mostly full of the things the Obama administration is trying: Tax credits for small businesses who hire new employees? Obama just proposed it in his FY 2011 budget. Cutting discretionary spending? It's already on the table. No on "card check"—is anyone other than labor even talking about that?
Publicly, Romney criticized Obama's bailout of General Motors. But it's hard to imagine the son of three-term Michigan Gov. George Romney standing by and letting GM (and Ford, and all the rust-belt companies in their supply chain) go under.
Careful Getting In
And that title, "No Apology," is really a shot at Obama—advancing the favorite argument of Dick Cheney and others that Obama is weak when it comes to the war on terror. But how will Romney—or any would-be future president—actually get to Obama's right on national security?
Obama upped troop levels in Afghanistan by 51,000. Does Romney want to send in more forces? Obama authorized more drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen in one year than George W. Bush did during his entire presidency. Would a President Mitt Romney call for using more strikes while simultaneously rescinding Obama's "extended hand/open fist" diplomacy?
It's a safe bet that Romney will recycle Sen. Scott Brown's refrain: "Tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop" terrorists, "not lawyers to defend them." After all, it's a pretty good tag line. But Brown, a reserve JAG Corps lawyer, knows better—and so does Romney. Obama adopted the Supreme Court's due process standards applied during Bush's second term. Romney will, too.
Obama really isn't close to being the far-left leader that his opponents have made him out to be. Romney isn't really offering a significant departure from Obama when it comes to public policy. He represents a nice, neat consolidation of the big ideas and broad themes that his party stands for—bundled together in a nice, neat, non-confrontational package. Kind of like President Obama.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.