Mitt no match for amiable Obama routine

Mon, Aug 13, 2012, 01:00

OPINION: Romney’s failure to convey an impression of likability to voters exposes a key weakness

ISN’T IT amazing? Two introverts facing off in the brightest spotlight of all for president.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are at their most appealing when they are with their families.

Unfortunately, we don’t often get that vantage point. And beyond those circles of trust, both men can seem as if they are sealed in their own spaceships.

The big difference, the one that will probably decide this presidential race, is this: Barack Obama is able to convey an impression of likability to voters. Given how private he is, an enigma even to some who are close to him, it’s an incredible performance.

That likability slips through your hands at closer range. The president survived a “raised by wolves” upbringing, as Michelle has called it. He retained the monastic skills that sustained him through the solitude of his years in New York. His “winning smile,” as Jonathan Alter wrote in The Promise, “obscured a layer of self-protective ice”. His staffers respect him, but he doesn’t inspire the kind of adoration that the Bush presidents got. And the pillow-plumping romance with the press is over.

The New York Times’s Amy Chozick wrote that the president “has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion”.

He can be thin-skinned and insecure at times, but he radiates self-sufficiency, such a clean, simple aesthetic that he could have been designed by Steve Jobs – Siri without the warmth.

(A poll by Purple Strategies asked which candidate seemed more like Apple, and it was, naturally, Obama.)

Yet voters see something genuine, and that is why Obama seems to be surviving the stalled economy and his own chuckleheaded remark: “If you’ve got a business – you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

A recent USA Today/Gallup poll showed Romney with higher marks on fixing the deficit, jobs, taxes and the economy. But Obama soared on personal traits – maintaining a 30-point advantage in likability, and better numbers on honesty, trust and empathy.

When John Glenn was running for president, the former astronaut elicited greater applause when he came onstage than when he left. Romney started out off-putting and now makes Willy Loman look like prom king. Obama is introverted and graceful; Romney is introverted and awkward.

Romney advisers attributed his free fall in the polls to brass-knuckle Obama adverts and summer doldrums rather than Mitt dullness. Maybe voters think Romney is already so sheathed in secret bubbles – Bain, Mormonism, his stint as governor of a liberal state – that electing him to the biggest bubble of all, the White House, would not be a good idea.

Even Republicans seem to have given up defending Mitt’s charms. As John Boehner memorably put it: “The American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney.”

Some say Romney waited too long to put up his biographical adverts and give personal interviews, letting himself be defined and slimed by the Obama commercials.

“The Obama camp can raise a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on their summer project,” said Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff. “With Romney’s help, they have defined Romney as a man with total disregard for the struggles of the middle class.”

Once a candidate gains the edge in “Who do you want to have a beer with?” – even if he doesn’t drink beer – it’s hard to reverse.

When Obama does rough adverts, it allays the fear that he’s the sort who can get rolled by the banks, by the generals, by the Republicans in the House. When Romney does rough adverts, it reinforces the fear that he’s unfeeling and a bit of a bully marketed by political mercenaries.

With only two weeks to go before the convention, the question burns: Will Mitt’s new mate, Rep Paul D Ryan of Wisconsin, make his run more personable?

You can bolster relatability with your number two pick, at least with certain demographics, as Obama did with Joe Biden. But Americans like to like their president. “You can’t outsource likability,” says Emanuel. “You can’t have an offshore account for it in the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands.”

Romney’s all-business/all-family rigidity makes him seem inaccessible. And his tax legerdemain has made him seem shady. As Marc Wolpow, a former Romney employee at Bain Capital, said in a Boston Globe story about Mitt’s 1988 deal with Michael Milken while the junk bond king was under investigation: “Mitt, I think, spent his life balanced between fear and greed. He knew that he had to make a lot of money to launch his political career. It’s very hard to make a lot of money without taking some kind of reputational risk along the way.”

In the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, Karl Rove urged Mitt to reveal his character in his convention speech by talking openly about “his father’s modest upbringing, his wife’s illness and his wealth”.

Obama lost the thread of his narrative of hope and change, and Romney never developed one, even on his supposed speciality, the economy.

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