If I could write Obama's speeches so as to best influence the national conversation in a positive way, they would have simply no mention of religion. Our society is best served by candidates being chosen not by a religious litmus test but by a robust debate on the relevant political issues of our times. However, if I was Obama's paid speechwriter and instead had the aim of getting him elected, I would do the exact opposite. Being much more aggressive at establishing and pushing his Christian religious identity is a tactical imperative.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama share a significant weakness in electability due to their respective religion problems. For Obama, it has been an inability to effectively convey that he is a pious Christian, or even a Christian at all. Only 24% of Republicans and 29% of Independents could correctly state that he is a Christian; an alarming 18% of Republicans still think that Obama is a Muslim. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has little trouble having his religion be correctly identified, his problem is that he is a devout follower of the wrong religion. While the extent to which his Mormonism directly hurts him is up for debate, it certainly is far from helping him.
By increasing the prominence of his religious beliefs, Obama can score two victories at once. He can alleviate one of his own weaknesses that keeps some people away from him and, by shifting the conversation more to religion, can implicitly underline Romney's religious weakness. Thrown into stump speeches, statements, and even debates, can be a little sprinkling of implications that Obama is a Christian. He conventionally ends a big speech with "and God bless the United States of America". There should be more of this thrown in before hand such as "as a Christian, I feel that...". To a religious crowd he can draw a relationship between a biblical quote that Jesus made and some policy aspect that might get picked up by the media. Etc. There are a wide range of ways that this can be slipped in and can increase the prominence of the view that Obama is a devout Christian.
It is a possible win, no lose situation. The extent to which a pivot towards greater emphasis on religion can help Obama is not immediately clear, but he cannot lose support by increasing his religiosity among the other 71% of independents who don't yet know after four years that he is a Christian. One thing is certain: if religion is not a relevant factor in the contest at all, Obama will not experience any of the benefit that might otherwise by conferred on the Christian side of a Christian vs Mormon race. The main mechanism by which Romney being a Mormon hurts him is not so much in that people don't like Mormons and want vote for him, but is in that he can no longer attack Obama on religion the way most Republicans could. It removes a weapon from Romney's arsenal. An emphasis from Obama on religion could also displace some of the religiously motivated culture war issues like abortion or freedom of religion that might otherwise be coming down the pipeline from Romney if he would prefer not to talk too much about religion.
Obama does have to be careful for he cannot directly challenge Romney's Mormonism or even appear as if he is doing this. In much the same way that being overtly racist is unacceptable, so too are direct challenges to Romney based on his Mormonism. During the primaries, the other candidates could not and would not attack Romney on his Mormonism directly and would instead simply talk about their own Christian religiosity band hope the people and the media would notice the difference. Obama should do the same.
It is something of an irony that Republicans nominated a candidate who was almost uniquely ill-equipped to capitalize on two of Obama's weaknesses. Firstly, in contrast to Obama's low polling on Obamacare, Romney is the single Republican in the country who actually implemented a very similar idea - Romneycare - in Massachusetts. While Romney has certainly jumped firmly on the 'repeal and replace' bandwagon, his ability to effectively attack Obama on this is certainly somewhat defanged. Secondly, to go up against Obama's ongoing inability to convince voters he is genuinely Christian - something core to the very identity of the Republican party - the Republicans managed to choose a Mormon. Against Obama's biggest strength - his wildly popular aim to eliminate the Bush era tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans - Romney is an archetype of the uber-rich, Wall Street vs Main Street villain in Obama's rhetoric, perfectly helping Obama. It baffles the mind how the Republicans may just squander an election that seemed like it was theirs to lose by nominating such a uniquely inappropriate candidate.
These weaknesses cannot be helped by Romney. He can no more pretend not to be a stinking rich Mormon than he can shove the individual mandate he implemented in Massachusetts under the rug. But Obama's religiosity weakness can be helped by Obama. He has the ability to change the tone and framing of his religiosity and make it strength over Romney that appeals to the independent who might normally like some of Obama's policies but wants to see a genuine Christian in office.
This past week we have seen Obama and Romney have a back and forth on the issue of Romney's record at Bain Capital. The talk show appearances and attack ads have been one of Obama going hard after Romney on this and Romney playing defence. The problem for Romney with this is that any prolonged conversation about his time as a venture capitalist making hundreds of millions of dollars, often by cutting jobs at companies they turned around, cannot possibly help him. Even if Obama's attacks fall flat and Romney nimbly defends them, time spent on this issue helps Obama and hurts Romney no matter what. On religion, Obama certainly cannot go as aggressive as he can on Bain Capital, but likewise time that he manages to get the meta-conversation (as in conversation that media spends discussing an issue but not ones led in, say, attack ads) turned towards religion will almost entirely be to his benefit. From the tactical perspective, Obama ought to get more religious.
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