Breaking up is hard to do - especially with Obama

Sat, Sep 1, 2012, 01:00

Romney faces the challenge of persuading voters to cut their emotional bond with the president, writes JIM RUTENBERGin Tampa

THROUGH THREE nights of vague videos, sentimental testimonials and, finally, his address to the nation on Thursday, Mitt Romney worked hard to show he has a heart. But he still needs to tackle the much harder job of convincing those Americans who so emotionally invested their hearts in President Barack Obama four years ago that it is time to accept that his presidency did not work, to let go of him and to move on.

Not even Romney’s strategists are pretending that is going to be simple. Even before leaving the nominating convention here, they were beginning a delicate 10-week campaign aimed at those voters who are disappointed in Obama but just cannot yet bring themselves to quit the president.

Following month after month of disappointing job numbers, poll after poll showing dissatisfaction in his economic performance, and hundreds of millions of dollars in negative advertisements, a large portion of wavering voters maintain a personal attachment to Obama and a tentative willingness to give him more time to get it right, top strategists with both campaigns agree.

That is testament, perhaps, to the power of that scene four years ago when Obama and his family first crossed the threshold of the White House to become its first African-American household, “an inspiring moment that so many have awaited so long”, as former president George W Bush put it at the time.

Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, may have painted a biting picture on Wednesday night when he referred to the faded Obama poster hanging above unemployed college graduates’ childhood beds, but the poster was still there, after all. Most challengers face the relatively clinical task of persuading voters to fire the incumbent. Romney faces the more fraught mission of persuading them to break up with the incumbent.

“It’s going to be hard to break the bond a lot of voters feel with Obama, even if they are disappointed,” said Mark McKinnon, a former strategist for Bush. “It may be a bad marriage but they still want to save it.”

It is Romney’s job to convince them that it is beyond repair; that the risks of staying in it are greater than the risks of starting anew with him; and that he and Ryan represent a fresh start akin to a generational change.

But leading these voters – many of them women, according to pollsters – to that conclusion takes finesse and delicacy, Republican strategists say. The sort of visceral attacks for which conservative talk-show hosts are calling risk sending voters into a defence posture on behalf of Obama and, more to the point, of their own decisions four years ago.

Rather, strategists say, it requires providing a path that gives them permission to make the break. They need to be told that it is okay to remain proud of their initial support for Obama but that they can now be equally at peace with a decision to change their minds. “There is no need to make people feel bad about what they’ve done [in order] to feel good about what they’re going to do,” said Stuart Stevens, a senior adviser to Romney, as he sat looking out at the empty convention hall a few hours before his boss’s speech. So it was that Romney used his nomination speech to hark back to that period when “many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president”.

Republican strategists acknowledge that they have to contend with a general sense, in polls of swing voters, that Obama inherited an economy in dire shape and that his policies could improve the economy more substantially if given time.

Romney appeared to be attempting to deconstruct that notion when he urged his audience to come to the realisation that “you know there’s something wrong with the job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him”.

That sort of tone – more lament than anger – appears to some analysts to be the most effective means of wresting away former Obama voters.

“There are signs he is making progress,” McKinnon said, pointing to some polls that show Obama trailing Romney among independent voters. This is not to say that there will be any going soft on Obama. Romney’s campaign is running a raft of harsh advertisements against the president, including one that has been repeatedly criticised by media fact-checkers for falsely alleging he is stripping work requirements from the 1996 welfare overhaul law.

In his speech, Romney laced into Obama, saying “his promises gave way to disappointment and division”. The previous evening, Ryan prepared the ground with a speech of considerable rhetorical force in which he assailed Obama on multiple grounds, including running up the national debt.

With a newly flush bank account – his acceptance of the nomination triggered the release of the money he collected for the general election – Romney can afford to send out more than one message at once for the first time since he emerged earlier this year as his party’s presumed nominee.

Ryan, at the age of 42, perhaps has a bit more leeway than Romney, representing his brand of change as the first vice- presidential nominee of his generation, Generation X. His unveiling here has screamed “new direction”. Romney’s aides have aggressively put him forward to make Obama look like the old order, a turnabout for the man who in the last presidential campaign took ownership of the concept of change.

That goes to the other part of the equation here: even if Romney’s campaign continues to make inroads on the firing part, it has to make up ground on the hiring part, with polls preceding the convention showing him as lagging Obama on several personal likeability measures.

– (New York Times)