Obama ran successfully as a post-partisan candidate in 2008. It won't work this time. Here's why. Romney has successfully outmaneuvered Obama and claimed the post-partisan mantle. With a wink and a nod to his party, he's telling voters that he's the man who will fight hard for the middle class, for jobs, for education, and now, for women.
Forget about the so-called body bumping, manning up and fighting stances in the last debate. That's a distraction. What matters is that Romney has captured the center. He has distanced himself from the policies of George W. Bush. Gone is the Romney who courted the Tea Party and the right wing.
What should Obama do? Take a lesson from JFK in 1960. Be partisan. Define the differences between Democrats and Republicans. In his debates with Richard Nixon, John Kennedy repeatedly reminded voters of the differences in principles and policies between the Democrats and Republicans. For example:
I come out of the Democratic party, which in this century has produced Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and which supported and sustained these programs which I've discussed tonight. Mr. Nixon comes out of the Republican Party. He was nominated by it. And it is a fact that through most of these last 25 years the Republican leadership has opposed federal aid for education, medical care for the aged, development of the Tennessee Valley, development of our natural resources. I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party... The question before us is: which point of view and which party do we want to lead the United States?
It is hard to imagine President Obama saying something similar. Presidential campaigns these days are more about the candidates than their parties. And the two major parties are less popular than they once were. But reminding voters of that Romney is a Republican could be an effective way of holding him responsible for the policies that led to the financial crisis and the economic meltdown Obama inherited.
It can also be a way of asking voters what should be a defining question in the campaign: Who's on your side? Romney now claims he's all about helping the middle class, not cutting taxes for the wealthy. But Obama should ask the American people: Do you trust him? Or is this merely the "etch a sketch" conversion his campaign manager promised?
It is the Democratic Party that has historically fought for the middle class. Try this thought experiment, Obama might say: Can you imagine FDR, John Kennedy, or Bill Clinton saying behind closed doors that 47 percent of the American voters consider themselves victims, believe they are entitled to government support, and don't take responsibility for their lives? This statement by Romney wasn't just a slip of the tongue. It reflects what he and many of his fellow Republicans believe.
Obama would do well to remind the country of this difference. Doing so may not fit comfortably with his post-partisan identity. But if he wants to be reelected, he may have to put post-partisanship aside, and make this a choice between a Republican and a Democrat.