SARASOTA, Florida — Barack Obama figured out who Mitt Romney was in March, but the same can’t be said the other way around.
In a conundrum not unlike the situation Obama aides found themselves in earlier this year when they were struggling with whether to define the Republican nominee as either “severely conservative” or a coreless, “etch-a-sketch” opportunist, Romney aides must decide how to define the president in the home stretch of the presidential race.
Is Obama a radical leftist working to turn America into a socialist welfare society? Or is a well-meaning incompetent, incapable of bringing change to Washington?
Judging by Romney’s messaging this week the answer is they still aren’t sure.
At a sweltering outdoor rally here Thursday, Romney laid into Obama for saying at a Univision forum that he couldn't "change Washington from inside."
“We face a Washington that’s broken — that can’t get the job done — and the President today threw in the white flag of surrender again,” Romney told the audience, drawing rousing applause in the sweaty climate. “I will change Washington! We’ll get the job done from the inside – Republicans and Democrats will come together. He can’t do it. His slogan was ‘Yes, we can.’ His slogan now is ‘No, I can’t.’”
Afterward, Romney's aides seemed confident, boasting about how quickly the candidate had added the line to the stump speech, and pledging to keep the talking point alive in coming days, as they would use it to question the president's fundamental competency.
"He said he wasn't up to the job of being president," one aide told BuzzFeed, recasting Obama's remarks. “Presidents need to force change, and that’s what Gov. Romney will do.”
But while Thursday's quick turn put Romney on offense, it also appeared to contradict his approach of just one day before, and his recent turn toward a harder-edged strategy of rallying the Republican base.
On Wednesday, during a fundraiser in Atlanta, Romney delivered a fiery, pulpit-pounding speech accusing the president of radically un-American ideas about the economic role of government.
"He [Obama] really believes in what I’ll call a government-centered society,” Romney said at a fundraiser. “I know there are some who believe that if you simply take from some and give to others then we’ll all be better off. It’s known as redistribution. It’s never been a characteristic of America. There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago where the president said yes he believes in redistribution. I don’t. I believe the way to lift people and help people have higher incomes is not to take from some and give to others but to create wealth for all."
The two attack lines may be logically inconsistent — radicals, after all, aren't generally very dangerous if they're incapable of affecting change — but they also represent two dueling narratives the Romney campaign has alternated between throughout the election.
For months of stump speeches dating back to the Republican primaries, Romney was fond of casting Obama as a well-intentioned failure; a "nice guy" who simply found himself out of his depth and drowning and in the Oval Office.
"This president tried, but he didn't understand what it takes to make our economy work. I do," Romney often said.
The sentiment was consistent, aides have told BuzzFeed, with Romney's personal view of the incumbent at the time: he was profoundly disappointed with Obama's job performance, but never questioned his moral character.
That softer line appears to have been driven by focus group research on swing voters as well.
"The 5 to 6 or 7 percent that we have to bring onto our side," Romney told a covertly-recorded fundraiser in May, "because they voted for him, they don't want to be told that they were wrong, that he's a bad guy, that he did bad things, that he's corrupt. Those people that we that have to get, they want to think they did the right thing but he just wasn't up to the task. They love the phrase, 'He's in over his head.'"
That approach began to change, though, in the early summer, as the Obama campaign unloaded a barrage of brutal attack ads on Romney's business record filled with charges that the challenger felt were unfair and unduly harsh. As the Republican's aides threatened to escalate the character debate to a no-holds-barred war, Romney yanked the deferential line from his stump speech and ratcheted up his rhetoric.
In the Romney campaign's alternate theory of Obama, the incumbent president is a liberal crusader bent on "turning America into Europe." On Obamacare especially — a "risky, unproven, federal government takeover of health care" in Romney's words — he has cast the president in a far more nefarious role.
“You don't get the choice of whether you want comprehensive or whether you want catastrophic,” Romney said this week. “The government is going to tell you what you have to have. The government is ultimately have a board that tells you what kind of care you can receive. “
Over the past few months, Romney has bounced back and forth haphazardly between the two characterizations of the president, depending on Boston's strategy of the moment — it's been constantly in flux lately — and the room the candidate is speaking to. Now, with their pick of two unflattering statement by the president — a 14-year-old clip of Obama revealing he supports "redistribution" of wealth, or his recent concession that he can't "change Washington" from inside — Boston has a clearer choice than ever. Each of those Obama "gaffes" is tied to a strategy for the Romney campaign. Which will they pursue?
The Obama team settled on their answer after intensive internal deliberations and polling back in April: Romney was to be attacked for being an extreme right-wing ideologue.
What’s clear from this week — with 47 days to Election Day — is that the Romney campaign either hasn’t yet reached a decision on how to frame Obama, or has decided that a coherent message isn’t necessary.
Democrats, meanwhile, suggested that this video cat had replaced Romney’s campaign manager Matt Rhoades: