For Obama and Romney, 2012 Is a Referendum on the Past

The president says his rival wants to take America "back to the future" -- and Romney doesn't disagree.


The Obama campaign would have you believe that a Mitt Romney presidency would be a step backward in time -- a trip "back to the future," as numerous Obama surrogates have recently put it.

It was the descriptor Vice President Biden used for Romney's foreign policy in a speech in New York on Thursday: "Americans know we can't go back to the future, back to a foreign policy that would have America go it alone," he said. The previous evening, Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, and chief strategist, David Axelrod, used the phrase repeatedly in characterizing Romney's economic vision in a conference call with reporters: "Mitt Romney wants to go back to the future," Messina said, to a set of policies that "benefited the few but crashed our economy." Clearly, the president's team believes the title of Steven Spielberg's 1985 time-travel hit is an effective catchphrase with which to tag his opponent.

The thing is, Romney doesn't necessarily disagree.

Returning to the past is a major theme of Romney's stump speech, in which he bemoans Obama's radical impulse to "transform America" and proposes, instead, that America be "restored." In one typical formulation, delivered in Wisconsin on March 30, he put it thus: "Candidate Barack Obama pledged that he wanted to 'transform this nation.' And, unfortunately, that is exactly what he has been doing. ... I don't want to transform America; I want to restore the values of economic freedom, opportunity, and small government that have made this nation the leader it is." The name of Romney's Super PAC, Restore Our Future, has been mocked as nonsensical, but it makes sense to me: We used to have a future, it says, but that hope has been snatched away from us, and we need new, more careful leadership to restore it.

A return to the past was also the way top Romney advisers described the Republican's foreign policy vision on a conference call with reporters Thursday morning. "The foreign policy doctrine of all modern presidencies has been peace through strength. That tradition began with Truman, it continued through JFK, it continued through Reagan, it continued through Bush, and now on to candidate Romney," Alex Wong, Romney's foreign-policy director, said. "The only two exceptions to that tradition have been Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama." Dan Senor, the onetime spokesman for the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq who is now a Romney policy adviser, added: "It's President Obama who's an outlier in terms of America's leadership in the world. It certainly won't be a Romney administration."

Obama and Romney disagree on the value of the past, as the context of these remarks makes clear. For Obama, it was the bad old days. Sometimes, he's talking specifically about the economic and foreign policies of the Bush administration, which he ran against so successfully in 2008; other times, he frames Romney as a throwback to the 1950s, when women and minorities lacked rights. Come with me, Obama says, into a bright, uncharted future, when the injustices of the past are rectified and a better life is possible.

For Romney, on the other hand, the past is a place of comfort and security -- the hallowed promise of America, now vanished. His nostalgia is rarely located specifically in time, unless you count references to the Founding Fathers, his own father, and Ronald Reagan; he rarely makes the mistake of explicitly praising George W. Bush, who remains unpopular. Rather, Romney's appeals to a bygone time are a play on voters' widespread feeling of anxiety and uncertainty, the sense that Obama has taken the nation in a radical new direction that breaks with American traditions. Come with me, Romney says, back to a time when you felt safe.

In making the 2012 election a referendum on voters' feelings about the past, the candidates' visions diverge according to the most literal definitions of "conservative" and "progressive" -- the one wanting to preserve social order, the other to reform it. It's one more way this election represents the most classic of choices between political philosophies.