Much has been made over Mitt Romney’s purported need to pivot to the center for the general election. His advisor’s etch-a-sketch gaffe got the chattering class going with speculation as to what and how he’d change for the general election. But in fact Romney ran a primary race as a center-right candidate. With the exception of a health care alternative to ObamaCare (which he will need to develop) and his immigration policy (which could use some positive emphasis on legal immigration), he really doesn’t need to modify his policy positions. He’s got detailed plans on entitlements, taxes, job growth, trade, foreign policy and so on.

President Obama is another story, however. For months now, he’s been on a hyper-partisan jag, most recently ranting about the House budget’s “Social Darwinism” and championing the purely symbolic Buffett Rule. But this might be problematic in the general election. Josh Kraushaar writes:

If President Obama loses reelection in November, the seeds of his defeat will have been planted in his fiery, populist campaign kickoff speech at the Associated Press luncheon last week. It was a negative, overly political address at sharp odds with his optimistic 2008 campaign message of hope and change. It seemed petty at times, mocking Mitt Romney for using the word “marvelous” and exaggerating proposed conservative entitlement reforms as “Social Darwinism.” All of this while giving a supposedly nonpolitical, non-campaign address.

Ideologically, the speech was a throwback to the Democratic rhetoric of decades past. . . .

With Obama’s speech, there was no centrist recalibrating to reassure worried independents that he’s not too ideological; no sugar to sweeten the tough talk.

The problem is worsened by his liberal positions, including ObamaCare, cap-and-trade, tax hikes, anti-business rhetoric and massive new regulations. In that sense, his left-leaning partisan rhetoric is consistent with his record as president. (“Despite claiming that he’s governed as a moderate, Obama has rarely broken ranks with his party’s congressional leadership, as Clinton did with NAFTA and welfare reform. Merely mounting a reactionary defense of the way things have been done in the past isn’t enough anymore.”)

We can certainly expect to hear him distort the language of the right. He’ll line up the straw men, as he did in Florida when he suggested that Republicans were opposed to a progressive tax plan or that the House budget cut taxes on the rich. (The plan is revenue neutral with lower rates offset by broadening of the base.) He’ll run against prior Republicans administrations. What he won’t do is tell us what he plans to do in a second term. In Florida yesterday, he railed against the GOP, recounted his “achievements” and lit those straw men on fire.

But as to his own agenda, this is what he said: “And so if you’re willing to stick with me on this thing, if you’re willing to keep pushing through the obstacles, and knocking on doors, and making phone calls, and fighting for what is right, if you’re willing to work even harder than we did in 2008, we will finish what we started.” That’s it. What does that mean? I have no idea. Neither will any of the voters who think about it for more than a few minutes.

The reason why Obama is still playing to his base with a negative onslaught, I think, is two-fold. First he can’t run on his record without conceding ObamaCare is unpopular and possibly unconstitutional and the economy is still weak. Second, his shopworn liberalism is plumb out of ideas. Other than spend more, tax more and regulate more — none of which has benefited the economy — what has he got to address our ongoing problems? Hopelessness and the status quo. That’s not only a turn-off for the swing independent voters but for natural constituents (union members, young people, Catholics) who’d like to know just what Obama still has to offer them. Not much, it turns out.