Do Americans Want a Fighter or a New Day?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 5 2012 9:39 PM

Fight vs. Change

At the end of a long campaign, the candidates' closing messages can be summed up in their favorite words.

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If you are still undecided and haven’t voted, you don’t have a lot of time to read position papers and rewatch the debates. You certainly don’t have time to read a five-part series on presidential attributes (though you should). On the other hand, you may be undecided because you’ve read everything, and the more you read the more confused you become.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

Whatever camp you’re in, time is drawing short. So here is a quick rundown of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s closing arguments and parting shots.

Barack Obama: Fight. President Obama is ending the campaign on a pugilistic note. Though he starts his rallies by nodding to the spirit of brotherhood that prevailed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, he presents himself as a warrior for regular people. He has settled on a narrative of combat, telling the story of his presidency as a series of tough and unpopular battles—from the auto bailout to his health care plan. And, in this story, it is the middle class he seeks to defend. Covered with scars and bruises, he promises not to give up the fight for programs that will help build the middle class. “You know that I’ll fight for you and your families every single day, as hard as I know how,” he says frequently. The word fight appears more than a dozen times in his speeches. He presents himself as a bulwark against the Republicans in Congress but also against the privileged class of financiers and uber-rich that Romney is supposed to represent. “The folks at the very top in this country, they don’t need another champion in Washington,” he says. “The laid-off furniture worker who’s retraining at age 55 for a career in biotechnology—she needs a champion. The small restaurant owner who needs a loan to expand after the bank turned him down—he needs a champion. The cooks and waiters and cleaning staff working overtime in a hotel somewhere, trying to save enough to buy a first home or send their kid to college—they need a champion.” The president is making a deal with his audiences: If he isn’t going to give up on the fight, he is asking voters not to give up on him.

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Mitt Romney: Change. Mitt Romney has appropriated Obama’s message of change from the 2008 campaign. Every challenger is naturally a change candidate, but Romney is using the word change as often as a checkout clerk. The comparison to President Obama doesn’t simply end with the use of his words, though. Romney has been measuring Obama against his 2008 promises. “Instead of bridging the divide, he has made it wider,” says Romney. His closing argument has little red meat. The base is already fired up, so the former governor of Massachusetts isn’t talking to them. Romney’s closing message is to undecided voters—particularly undecided women. He will turn around the economy because he’s turned things around before. “I built a business, and turned around another. I helped put an Olympics back on track. And with a Democratic legislature, I helped turn my state from deficit to surplus, from job losses to job growth, and from higher taxes to higher take-home pay.” The argument closes on an elegiac vision of togetherness. “On November 7th, we'll get to work. We'll reach across the street to that neighbor with the other yard sign and we'll reach across the aisle in Washington to people of good faith in the other party.” Without coming out and saying it, Romney is closing his final campaign rallies with a message of hope. This is the “hope” portion of President Obama’s 2008 message, though in today’s partisan Washington it sounds more like a fantasy.

The campaign of 2012 is now down to a matter of hours. We have endured an endless number of speeches, a litany of supposed gaffes and game-changers, hundreds of millions of dollars in advertisements, and a battleground map that barely moved despite all of the above. Tomorrow, provided the lawyers don’t get their way, one of the candidates will earn the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Then, we will know whether Americans want a fighter or a new day. There’s nothing left to do but vote and count.  

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