Obama and Ryan -- Similar in Approach and Effect

Katy O'Donnell

Correction: An earlier version of this story had Ryan incorrectly identified in the third paragraph. 

When President Obama, in a gesture of goodwill, spoke before House Republicans at their retreat in January 2010, he lauded House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan for putting forward “a serious proposal” on deficit reduction, even as he said they should have a “healthy debate” about the ideas they didn’t agree on. The two briefly sparred about the growth of discretionary spending, but their chummy greeting and handshake after the event – when Obama reportedly signed an autograph for Ryan’s daughter -- signaled the possibility of a productive relationship. Ryan has said he thought the bookish fellow Midwesterner and he would get along well, and he is careful to note that the likes “the idea of President Obama” and the fact that the country elected him, “just not the ideas coming from” him.

The similarities between the two wonky young political phenoms – each of whom got interested in public policy in his 20s and then climbed the political ranks at a breakneck pace while managing to appear above petty politics -- are striking. And at one point, it appeared they were on track to become friends.

Both Obama and Ryan come across as brainy and withdrawn, cooler than the glad-handing Central Casting politician but still blessed with the common touch and affable enough to avoid being labeled wooden. Their carefully maintained above-politics demeanors were crucial to both men’s breathtakingly swift political ascents. Despite now being labeled as “radicals” by their opponents, they both initially were supported as leaders who could usher in a new way of doing things in Washington that would elevate intelligence and serious debate above bomb-throwing.

Ryan has been lauded by bipartisan budget groups for having the courage to take on tough issues, while Obama, as an unknown candidate for Senate, spellbound a nation with a 2004 convention speech urging unity across party lines. The occasional delivery of a targeted critique against his own party has contributed to each man’s above-the-fray aura; they’ve become polarizing figures now by virtue of their ideas, without the confrontational style or delivery of Anthony Weiner or Newt Gingrich.

In short, they’re incredibly adept at marketing and messaging. Both manage to make their policy proposals -- no matter how complicated the actual formulations, calculations and legalese involved -- into sweeping manifestos that promise the redemption of America.

It’s a maneuver only the most dexterous of politicians can handle. Obama and Ryan are both Cause candidates whose appeal is emotional and personal; they make their supporters feel better about themselves, their parties and the country just by voting for them. Perhaps no one will ever equal Obama on that score, but Ryan’s reputation as an intelligent, serious conservative with friends across the aisle comforts Republicans wary of the ever-louder fringe. Already pundits have coalesced around the idea that Ryan’s name on the ticket will move the race away from “Romney Hood” and “Obamaloney” shenanigans into more substantive, policy-oriented territory.