LONDON – If you close your eyes, ignore the posh British accents and just focus on the words being spoken in the final weeks of this country’s razor-close election campaign, you might notice something peculiar: Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband sound a lot like Barack Obama.
Or at least, they seem to be trying to.
No, neither of the relatively charisma-free candidates for prime minister comes close to matching Obama’s soaring rhetoric. And chants of “Fired up! Ready to go!” at a British campaign event, dour affairs that they are, would go over about as well as a Revolutionary War reenactment on the back lawn of Buckingham Palace.
But if you pay attention to the words and the basic themes, there’s an unmistakable echo – particularly when compared to the winning message that Obama deployed during his last campaign, in 2012.
In Miliband’s case, that’s perhaps no surprise. Much like Obama, the Labor leader took the reins of his party by knocking off an older and more entrenched candidate with a youthful and progressive message of change. (For Obama, the ousted rival was Hillary Clinton. For Miliband, it was his own brother, David.)
Although many in Labor had hoped that Miliband the Younger would become the British version of Obama, that hasn't panned out – as his own advisers have acknowledged. Awkward on the campaign stump, Miliband has flirted with record-low approval ratings for a party leader.
And yet, his message is straight from the Obama playbook: a relentless focus on income inequality, a persistent appeal to economic fairness and a withering portrayal of his opponents as plutocratic defenders of the rich.
Obama in 2012 called income inequality “the defining issue of our time” and advocated policies aimed at reducing it, including a minimum wage hike and an end to tax loopholes for the wealthy, especially off-shore havens.
“We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by,” Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union speech as the campaign kicked off, “or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”
Miliband in 2015 has built his campaign around making sure that economic success comes “not when we only reward those with the six-figure bonuses, but when we reward the hard work of every working person.”
And how would he do that? By raising the minimum wage and ending tax loopholes for the wealthy – especially so-called “non-doms” who enjoy British residency but don’t pay U.K. taxes.
“We will make sure those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden,” Miliband said this week as Labor unveiled its plan for governing if it wins May 7. “We'll say enough is enough to the people who live here, work here, send their kids to school here, but don’t want to pay taxes here like everyone else.”
Cameron’s mimicry of Obama is less predictable. The prime minister is, after all, from the political right, a champion of low taxes and fiscal austerity.
But his Conservative Party is not nearly as far to the right as the Republicans, and by all accounts, Obama and Cameron enjoy a cordial relationship as leaders of the two main pillars of Western security.
They also share something important, and politically useful: Both came to power amid an economic crisis that began under their political adversaries, and both could claim credit for a recovery by the time they ran for reelection.
Obama exploited that fact to the fullest in both the 2010 midterms and his 2012 campaign, endlessly warning that a return to Republican rule would mean swerving away from the path to prosperity.
“They drove our economy into a ditch,” Obama told cheering supporters seemingly every chance he got. “We got the car out of the ditch. And then they’ve got the nerve to ask for the keys back! I don’t want to give them the keys back. They don’t know how to drive.”
The first Tory campaign poster featured a ribbon of blacktop cut through idyllic British countryside along with the phrase, “Let’s stay on the road to a stronger economy.”
In case the message wasn’t clear, Cameron has amplified it with campaign speeches in which he’s celebrated the 2 million Brits who have gone back to work since he came to office, the deficit that’s half as big and the GDP that’s growing at a healthy clip. Labor, he tells the Tory faithful, would put it all at risk.
“Together, with the hard work of the British people, we have rescued our economy, created record numbers of jobs, put Britain back on her feet,” Cameron said this week in launching the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the next five years. “Let’s not let Labor drag us back to square one.”
So are the echoes of Obama an accident? Almost certainly not. For all the differences between the British and American political systems, there are enough similarities that success in one is sure to inspire imitation in the other.
But there may be another factor at work. David Axelrod and Jim Messina were two of Obama’s top strategists in 2012. Now they’ve dipped into the world of British politics, but on opposite sides. Axelrod is advising Miliband, while Messina is a consultant for Cameron.
With just weeks to go in a dead-heat race, they'll likely be dusting off their best material from the 2012 White House campaign to try to win their man the keys to 10 Downing Street in 2015.