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Peter S. Canellos

From Patrick, a blueprint for Obama

By Peter S. Canellos
October 8, 2011

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DEVAL PATRICK and Barack Obama shared a campaign strategist and a message that got them elected: Hope and change. Each soon managed to disappoint his core supporters while trying to grapple with a plunging economy. As governor, Patrick’s low-key manner led to questions about whether he was overmatched by events. But he turned his fortunes around, and won a dogged reelection campaign.

At first blush, it seems a little easy to suggest that Patrick’s reelection could be a model for Obama, as if all black politicians face exactly the same challenges. The two men have very different personalities. And, of course, Patrick was running in liberal Massachusetts, and didn’t have to slug it out in the purple states.

But their messages were so congruent, and their performances in office so similar, that the parallels can’t be ignored. Thus, Patrick’s reelection has to be considered the best available blueprint for Obama ’12 — and he should study it relentlessly.

Thirteen months before his reelection, in October 2009, Patrick had a record as difficult to assess as Obama’s is now. Like Obama, he had ridden into office on a wave of grassroots enthusiasm, with a message that meant different things to different people. To liberals long shut out of power, hope and change meant a revival of progressive government. To many new voters, it meant an open approach to government, free of politics as usual. (In Massachusetts, that meant no cronyism and legislative horse-trading; in D.C., it meant approaching problems in a bipartisan spirit.)

Both men ended up disappointing their supporters, but not entirely alienating them. The disappointment stemmed both from a lack of unambiguous, marquee accomplishments and from the depressingly quick revival of the forces they seemed to have vanquished - budget-cutters in Massachusetts and right-wing ideologues in Washington.

Patrick’s first term was genuinely hard to rate. He had performed several politically thankless tasks that arguably led to leaner government: Reforming a bloated pension system and combining the state’s feuding transportation agencies. Conservatives felt there hadn’t been nearly enough budgetary savings, and liberals found nothing new to cheer about. But the grumbling masked some residual respect for Patrick having at least tackled the problems.

Patrick also engineered a major education reform, taking on teachers’ unions, and bet heavily on economic development efforts for biotech and clean energy. But overall numbers of jobs plunged in the economic downturn, and critics were quick to deem the biotech and clean-energy plans as failures.

What turned things around wasn’t some late-breaking good news. It wasn’t a demonization of his opponent. It was the surprising alacrity with which Patrick stepped forward to defend his record as a pragmatic attempt to address serious problems. A switch seemed to go off, and Patrick suddenly awoke with a clearer understanding of why he was running for reelection. It wasn’t about hope and change anymore, but defending the record of the administration, and confidently presenting it as a blueprint for a better future.

He didn’t waste a lot of time trying to re-engage with the liberal base; conservative opposition did that job for him. He did seize on any scant evidence of economic improvement to declare a turnaround. While some political playbooks would have seen risk in such a declaration, making him seem out of touch, Patrick faced down the dissenters and proclaimed that the state was on the road to recovery.

This didn’t feel like an entirely empty boast because he presented his education reform, biotech, and clean-energy programs as pieces of a plan to woo high-wage jobs to the state. “This is our creed,’’ he proclaimed at the summer convention in Worcester, with such soaring intensity that doubters in his own party felt energized.

On budgetary matters, Patrick stressed moderation. Yes, there had been tax hikes, but also a lot of budget cutting. There were some short-term fixes that enabled programs to keep functioning, but he defended them as necessary to prevent harm to people who rely on them. When his Republican opponent cast these efforts as a failure to grapple with the need for larger cuts, Patrick expressed confidence in the long-term budgetary picture. He made it seem like his opponent was a naysayer.

Obama’s administration certainly hasn’t lacked major initiatives. From health care to financial regulation to bailing out the auto industry, he arguably began cleaning up messes that long preceded his administration; even if voters have yet to see enough reason for optimism, some probably respect Obama for taking action.

Obama has been aggressive in taking on teachers’ unions and setting terms for school “turnarounds.’’ His “green economy’’ has yet to bear much fruit, but the goal of competing for clean-energy jobs in the future still commands wide support.

If the House-Senate super committee, whose existence is the product of Obama’s dealing, comes through with serious action on the deficit while preserving entitlements, Obama can embrace it as an historic bargain.

In short, he has to do what Patrick did in Massachusetts: Present his record as both an unusually diligent attempt to tackle longstanding problems and as a blueprint for economic success in the future. As Patrick proved, the biggest obstacle to Obama’s reelection won’t be either disenchanted liberals or aroused Tea Party conservatives. It’s the frustrated voters who shrug their shoulders and say, “Give someone else a chance. We can’t do worse.’’

Patrick convinced them that there was actually quite a lot to lose if they denied him another term. Obama has to do the same.

Peter S. Canellos is editorial page editor of The Globe.