As he prepares for the second presidential debate, President Barack Obama can learn a valuable political lesson from an unlikely source: George W. Bush.
When Bush defeated John Kerry in 2004, it was due in no small part to the fact that the Massachusetts Senator was widely viewed as a "flip-flopper." Even after polls found that Bush was perceived as having lost all three of that year's presidential debates, he still benefited from the general impression that he was more genuine than his opponent.
Bear in mind that Mitt Romney took a big hit in the polls after the "47%" videotape was leaked back in September. Although Obama's lackluster performance in his first debate against Romney took attention away from that controversy, it hardly rendered it irrelevant. Imagine, thus, a situation in which the president's concluding statement on Tuesday night begins with him pulling out an index card, telling viewers that he's about to read a quote from Romney's "47%" remarks, and then reciting the following: "I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
It is essential that he uses this specific line because, more than any other segment of the "47%" comments, it captures the disdain Romney feels for so many of his fellow Americans. After that, Obama should point out that the "47%" includes senior citizens, veterans, people who earn less than $16,812 a year, and millions of middle-class families ... none of whom were intended to hear that remark. As Romney's campaign manager once observed (and Obama should repeat), Romney is an "Etch-a-Sketch" candidate, changing his views depending on the audience. That is why he initially responded to the controversy by downplaying those remarks as having been "inelegantly stated" (another line Obama should read directly from his index card). When it became clear that that wasn't going to work with the general public, he then declared that they were "just completely wrong" (a phrase that, once again, should come directly from the card).
This is when the president needs to declare the obvious: The same man who believes those terrible things about 47% of his countrymen can't also believe that those comments were simply "inelegantly stated" and that, at the same time, they were actually "just completely wrong." Likewise, the same man who declared that he would repeal Obama's entire health care reform bill can't also be the one who now says he would keep parts of it and touts his own very similar program in Massachusetts. He can't be the same man who has flip-flopped so egregiously on issues from abortion and stimulus spending to our foreign policies in the Middle East. Because Romney is a talented debater (a fact Obama must openly acknowledge), he is skilled at talking around these inconsistencies whenever they are brought to his attention. When all is said and done, however, the choice in this election is between a president who is happy to stand on his record — leading America through a terrible recession, passing comprehensive health care reform, regulating Wall Street, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden — and a man about whom voters will feel compelled to ask themselves one question: "Who is the real Mitt Romney?"
Each of the aforementioned elements would serve a vital purpose in making Obama's case. The use of that specific quote from the "47%" comments will remind swing voters of what was most offensive about his remarks; the direct quotes from Romney's subsequent equivocations, mentioning of his campaign manager's "Etch-a-Sketch" comment, and allusion to other issues on which Romney has changed positions will substantiate the charge that he is a flip-flopper; the proud iteration of Obama's own achievements will make it clear that the president is running on his own record and not just against Romney; and the use of the question "Who is the real Mitt Romney?" will provide a simple and memorable slogan to encapsulate the biggest reason why independents should pause before supporting the Republican candidate. Even the choice to do this at the end of the debate is significant, since the use of such an unorthodox closing statement will guarantee attention, in addition to it being the last thought Obama leaves with his audience that night.
For this to work, of course, the same Obama who was polled as having won all three of the 2008 presidential debates will need to be on the top of his game throughout the evening. If he keeps the identification of Romney's flip-flopping at a steady pitch, however, a closing statement like the one suggested here would serve as a perfect crescendo.