How Obama and Romney Came to Battle for the Mantle of 'Change'

Voters decide today between two presidential candidates, both promising 'change'

Nov. 6, 2012— -- Voters go to the polls today to decide a dead even race between President Obama and Mitt Romney—two candidates for the nation's highest office, battling for ownership of the mantle of "change."

Obama, as an insurgent and historic candidate in 2008, used soaring rhetoric of hope and change to convince a jaded and economically insecure nation that its best days were ahead. But it remains to be seen tonight whether the durability of his message and his appeal will survive for a second term or was seen by voters as little more than flowering rhetoric.

"The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you, we as a people will get there," Obama said on election night 2008.

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Four years later, it is that same message that Romney has adopted on the trail, promising to foster the economic growth he says Obama has failed to deliver as president.

"President Obama promised change, but he could not deliver it. I promise change, and I have a record of achieving it," Romney states in what has become a key part of his closing argument in the final days of the campaign.

After a 19-month long campaign, the two men are statistically tied in nearly every major poll in the final days, including the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Obama's reelection predicament is as much a product of the harsh reality of the country's rapid fall into economic recession in Obama's first year in office, as it is a reflection of the reality of partisan gridlock that characterized Obama's first term in office and has tarnished his 2008 promise to change the way Washington works.

Despite coming to the White House cushioned by a near 60-vote super majority in the Senate and a 78-vote majority in the House of Representatives, Obama faced opposition nearly immediately when he sought approval for a $787 billion stimulus package.

As president, the man who campaigned on bringing the country together, who pledged to "heal the divides that have held back our great progress," trudged week after week to the halls of Congress in the first weeks of his presidency—courting votes from resistant Republicans who opposed the bill's massive price tag and many of its component parts. In the end, not a single Republican would back the bill.

And so it went, bill after bill. First the failure of comprehensive climate change legislation, then the difficult passage of the health care bill which became law on March 23, 2010 after a year of acrimonious debate, again without the help of a single Republican vote.

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The health care legislation also touched off historic backlash in the form of the "Don't Tread on Me" Tea Party movement, which first exploded at congressional town hall meetings across the country, and eventually drove Republicans to a majority in the House and shrank the Democratic Senate majority to 51 votes on an anti-tax, deficit reduction platform.

It is as the leader of this political party that Mitt Romney, a Republican governor from the Democratic state of Massachusetts, emerged.

To do it, he would need to amass a political apparatus early that could endure a long and bruising Republican primary, and raise enough money to compete against Obama's demonstrated ability to raise nearly $800 million.

Romney was also aided by a new campaign finance regime which birthed a new brand of political action committee capable of raising millions of dollars from individuals and corporations—a potent combination Democrats feared would be enough to wipe away any fundraising advantage Obama's may have possessed.

Outside groups helped Romney's campaign essentially tie Obama's $1 billion campaign effort in 2012 – financing just over half of the ads aired on Romney's behalf in the general election according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

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Yet before Romney could clinch the Republican nomination, he would have to overcome opposition from within his own party.

"Romney's main objection to contemporary Washington seems to be that he is not administering it," said conservative columnist George Will in a December 2011 column. "God has 10 commandments, Woodrow Wilson had 14 points, Heinz had 57 varieties, but Romney's economic platform has 59 planks — 56 more than necessary if you have low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens."

As early as January, Romney led the field as the candidate most Republicans expected to win the GOP nomination, according to Gallup. But he would not officially secure his party's nomination until April, after spending more than $12.6 million to convince Republicans to nominate him.

Romney persevered though a crowded field of Republican contenders—Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul.

During the primary, Romney's opponents would mete out a string of brutal criticisms of his two greatest vulnerabilities: a Massachusetts universal health care law and his time as the head of the private equity firm Bain Capital.

In the general election, Obama embraced Romney's Massachusetts health care bill as the basis of the plan Romney now seeks to repeal. And his campaign and its allies flooded the airwaves in battleground states like Ohio with ads accusing Romney of firing workers and outsourcing jobs through his stewardship of Bain.

The attacks appeared to have worked. Late in the summer, Romney was dogged by low favorability ratings, the lowest of any major party nominee at that point in the race since 1984, according to an ABC News/Washington Post Poll.

At the first presidential debate, however, Romney seized his opportunity to turn around the narrative with an aggressive performance that even Obama acknowledged in an ABC News interview handed the momentum to Romney.

Still, the Romney campaign has hinged this election on the state of the economy.

And though in September the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent for the first time since Obama took office, Romney argues on the campaign trail that the country can do better.

"Now if there's anybody that's worried that the last four years is the best we can do, or if there's anyone that's fearing that the American dream is fading away, or if there's anyone who wonders if there's better jobs or better paychecks or they're things of the past, there is a clear and unequivocal message: with the right leadership America is about to come roaring back," Romney said on Monday.

If either Obama or Romney are to win today, it will be with the help of Ohio, battleground state du jour where the unemployment rate has fallen from a high of 10.6 percent in 2010 to where it currently sits at 7.0 percent, some .8 percent lower than the national rate.

In that state on Sunday, Obama reminded voters of the "change" he campaigned on in 2008. "You may not agree with every decision I've made … you may sometimes be frustrated at the pace of change. I get frustrated at the pace of change sometimes. But you know I say what I mean and I mean what I say."