Five days before the election, and on the first full day of campaigning for both candidates since superstorm Sandy ripped up coastal New Jersey and New York City, the president and the ex-governor of Massachusetts are making their closing arguments. On Thursday, both spoke of the havoc wrought by the storm and expressed empathy for those who have suffered.
Mr. Romney urged donations to charities helping with storm relief. Mr. Obama revived a theme from his breakout speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, where he called on Americans to rise above partisanship. In Green Bay, Wis., Thursday, Obama spoke of Americans who have helped one another in response to Sandy.
“There are no Democrats or Republicans during a storm; there are just fellow Americans,” said Obama, fresh off a day with New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, that was filled with mutual admiration.
But both Obama and Romney also quickly returned to attacking each other and tried to one-up each other on the theme of change. Obama reprised the Bush years – years, he said, of tax cuts for the wealthy and “free license” for Wall Street and the oil and insurance industries – and then accused Romney of “using all his talents as a salesman” to dress up the same “failed” policies as change.
“Well, let me tell you, Wisconsin, we know what change looks like,” said Obama, who made “hope and change” his mantra in 2008. “And what the governor is offering sure ain’t change.”
Obama continued: “Giving more power back to the biggest banks isn’t change. Leaving millions without health insurance isn’t change. Another $5 trillion tax cut that favors the wealthy isn’t change. Turning Medicare into a voucher is change, but we don’t want that change.”
Romney has been hammering on “change” since well before Sandy, an easier argument for him to make as the challenger to an incumbent president who has labored to bring America back from near economic collapse four years ago.
Romney called out Obama for going negative and small – for trying to save Big Bird and “then playing silly word games with my last name,” a reference to the “Romnesia” attack line that Obama and the Democrats have been using to portray Romney as a flip-flopper.
And the former businessman ridiculed Obama’s suggestion that he would appoint a “secretary of business” in a second term to consolidate government functions that support business.
“We don't need a secretary of business to understand business; we need a president who understands business, and I do,” Romney said, speaking in Roanoke, Va.
“This isn't a time for small measures,” he continued. “This is a time for greatness. This is a time for big change, for real change.”
Each candidate also sought to convince voters that he has a plan for the next four years. Romney has long been pitching his five-point plan, centered on energy, trade, job training, debt and deficits, and small business. That remains the heart of his final pitch to voters.
Two weeks ago, Obama came out with his plan for a second term in a 20-page brochure called, “A Plan for Jobs and Middle Class Security.” For a while, he boiled that down to a five-point plan in his stump speech, focused on tax reform, energy, education, deficit reduction, and infrastructure.
In his new closing-argument speech, Obama raises many of the same themes, but packages them more under the rubric of “change” rather than under a five-point plan, and with more populist overtones.
While Obama suggests Romney would be a champion in Washington for “the folks at the very top,” he promises to represent the people he meets every day on the campaign trail – the laid-off furniture worker who is retraining for a job in biotechnology, the auto worker who’s “back on the job,” the young teacher “doing her best in an overcrowded classroom.”
Romney went personal toward the end of his speech, something he has avoided through much of the campaign but has been doing more of lately. He spoke of his older sister Lynn, who is a widow with eight grown children, including 43-year-old Jeffrey, who has Down syndrome.
“I’ve watched Lynn throughout those 43 years do everything in her power to give him a fulfilled and abundant life,” Romney said. “She’s a hero because she gives of herself to someone else she loves.”
On Friday, the campaign will see what is likely to be the last outside factor that could influence votes: the release of the October unemployment figure by the Labor Department. But economists don’t expect a major change in the rate, currently at 7.8 percent, and so undecided voters probably have all the information they’re going to get as they head into the voting booths on Tuesday.