Which America do you want?

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney say their candidacies in Tuesday’s election reject the past to provide a brighter future.

More specifically, Romney rejects the course of the last four years, and Obama rejects a return to his predecessor’s policies. The president would essentially continue the path he has sought to follow in his first term, and his rival would pursue an economic approach resembling that of prior Republican administrations.

But in a larger sense, Obama, his constituency and his basic philosophy embrace the country’s future, while Romney, his constituency and philosophy exemplify a return to its past.

That statement is not meant to contend that one vision is innately superior to the other. But to an even greater degree than the 2008 contest, this election represents more than just a sharp difference in policies — rather a divide in which one side epitomizes a rapidly changing 21st century America, while the other resists that vision by invoking the thinking and images of the 20th.

In a way, it’s hardly surprising that the nation’s first African-American president — who grew up partly abroad — reflects a country increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural. Likewise, he embraces the last half century’s enormous changes in social and sexual attitudes and seems more comfortable keeping government programs as a guarantor of domestic well-being while embracing international efforts dependent on accommodations with other, less powerful countries.

His political support comes less from a diminishing white majority than from an increasing number of Hispanics, blacks and Asian-Americans, less from the steadily smaller towns and rural areas and more from the increasingly more diverse urban and suburban areas. His support is weakest where anti-minority attitudes are strongest.

By contrast, Romney represents — and openly yearns for — the simpler America of an earlier day. He and his party resist changing attitudes in social and sexual mores and seek a return to the day when Americans depended less on federal programs and pursued international leadership less reliant on other global players.

His support is overwhelmingly white, in part due to Republican policies that have driven off millions of Hispanics, who represent the nation’s largest minority group. His base is most solid in those more homogenous, less populated towns and counties between the two coasts.

Exemplifying this contrast is the fact that the last Democratic presidential battle involved an African-American man and a white woman and the president’s two most recent Supreme Court choices were women, one of them Hispanic. By contrast, the GOP’s last two presidential candidates — and its last two Supreme Court choices — were all white men.

Economic recession

Four years ago, it appeared the country had turned decisively away from the America represented by John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But Obama’s difficulties in overcoming the severe economic recession he inherited opened the way for a political comeback by that America, one that otherwise might have been unlikely.

Whether that stems more from Obama’s policies, his politics or underlying economic factors, this election would surely have been less in doubt had Obama been more successful in restoring economic growth and reducing unemployment.

By contrast, if the Republicans — and Romney in particular — had done more to build bridges to those expanding minorities, especially Hispanics, he might have been able to win even if the economy had rebounded more. George W. Bush’s more far-sighted advisers advised that course, and their advice remains valid.

This year’s conflicting circumstances mean that, with just days to go, either Obama or Romney can yet win. But given demographic trends, even a Republican success won’t change the fact that the GOP’s long-term future will increasingly depend on accommodating its positions and attitudes to an America far different from the one in which many of us — including Romney — grew up.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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