Obama is Betting on the "Likability Factor"
Policy + Politics

Obama is Betting on the "Likability Factor"

REUTERS/Jason Cohn/Larry Downing

It’s obviously unfair to compare President Obama’s hilarious scripted jokes over the weekend to Mitt Romney’s  more prosaic and clumsy attempts at humor – like the time Romney pretended a waitress had goosed him in a New Hampshire diner while they were posing for a picture. 

Obama has been on a comic roll of sorts  for the past week, slow-jamming the news on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” and then drawing gales of laughter Saturday night with  tongue-in-cheek remarks  to more than 2,000 politicians, journalists and celebrities at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

"Look at this party. We’ve got men in tuxes, women in gowns, fine wine, first-class entertainment. I was just relieved to learn this was not a GSA conference."

For sure, there is less spontaneity than good preparation for a president who typically hews closely to his teleprompter text. But unlike the painfully robotic Romney, who frequently stumbles over his line or comes across as a corn ball, Obama frequently can knock it out of the park. He did that again at the White House correspondents dinner when he suggested that Romney would view the magnificent, cavernous Washington Hilton ballroom where they gathered as a “little fixer-upper.” Obama topped that line when he said,  "Look at this party. We’ve got men in tuxes, women in gowns, fine wine, first-class entertainment.  I was just relieved to learn this was not a GSA conference.”

Rather than compete with  the urbane eloquence of Obama, Romney may have to find another way to connect with voters.  “A candidate should be who he is,” notes University of Virgina political scientist Larry Sabato. “Sooner or later--and usually sooner--voters figure out a phony.”

From the moment Obama entered the national scene, he was blessed with  the cool factor. He was a hip, articulate African-American politician who played pick-up basketball with his closest  buddies and brought  crowds to their feet in tears with inspiring speeches promising a better tomorrow.   While a lot  of the pixie dust has fallen away from Obama  after three trying years of economic crisis, bitter partisan warfare with the Republicans, two wars and a number of scandals,  Obama remains the cool guy who can banter about pop culture, sports and music while discussing the finer points of a pending Supreme Court ruling.

"I turned to my wife and said, sweetheart, in your wildest dreams, could you see me running for president of the United States? "She said, Mitt, you weren't in my wildest dreams."

For his part, Romney might have been a presidential candidate right out of Central Casting, with his Hollywood good looks, political pedigree as the son of a former Michigan governor, and phenomenal success in business and Massachusetts politics, if it hadn’t been for his tin ear and seeming awkward inability to connect with ordinary people.

Romney has tried to win over his audiences with self-deprecating humor, usually mentioning his vivacious and politically skillful wife, Ann. One of his better efforts was this one:  “My wife and I fell in love in high school, and we've been going steady ever since. She knows my strengths and weaknesses. When we all got together to talk about it as a family, and we decided to get into this race, it was a big change, a big challenge. I turned to my wife and said, sweetheart, in your wildest dreams, could you see me running for president of the United States? "She said, Mitt, you weren't in my wildest dreams."

However,  Democratic political analyst Paul Begala recently dismissed Romney as a wealthy political elitist who suffers from a case of Marie Antoinette Syndrome. “Every time he tries to connect with a middle- class voter he makes the Grey Poupon guy look like Joe Lunchbucket,” Begala wrote recently in Newsweek. “He brags about his friends who own NASCAR teams and NFL franchises. He casually makes $10,000 bets. He says the $374,000 he made in speaking fees isn’t a lot of money. When a kid gives him an origami duck made out of a $1 bill, all he has in his pocket to replace it are hundreds.”

Begala acknowledges that Obama is an elite as well, with his millions of dollars in book royalties and an academic background as a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, president of the Harvard Law Review, and graduate of Columbia University.  But Americans in general are more comfortable with this type of academic elitism than the elitism of a self-made multi-millionaire who makes off-handed and uncalled for  comments about the extent of his wealth or disingenuous remarks about how he struggled to make his way in the world.
Obama beats Romney by 3 to 1 or better on the likeability index, and that’s not likely to change no matter what Romney does between now and the November election to polish his public image.  In recent  NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll , Obama drubbed Romney,  54 percent to 18 percent,  when people were asked whom they viewed as more “easygoing and likable.”

A  recent CNN/ORC poll found that, among adults nationwide, 56 percent thought of Obama as likable whereas only 27 percent felt the same way about Romney. A Quinnipiac University poll was more positive for Romney, indicating that 63 percent of Americans found him likable. But he was still overshadowed by Obama, who was liked by 81 percent.

Moreover, a Washington Post/ABC News poll  found that only 35 percent viewed Romney favorably, which the Post said made him the least popular party nominee since 1984. That would make him less popular than, say, Democrat Walter Mondale, who was crushed by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, or Democrat Michael Dukakis, who lost four years later to Republican George H.W. Bush, or former Republican senator Bob Dole of Kansas, who was clobbered by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

Obama’s personal magnetism and his attractive family have long been a significant political asset. They played an important part in his Democratic primary victory over Hillary Clinton in  2008, and his likability ratings weathered the worst of the financial crisis and recession and his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

For Romney, likability has long been a troublesome concept. During his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, his two main rivals, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and  former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, did little to disguise their contempt for the former Massachusetts governor.  In this year’s Republican primary season,  former senator Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, regularly denounced Romney as a liar and flipflopper who distorted their records with millions of dollars of negative and untruthful  campaign ads.

Now that Romney has wrapped up his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Santorum and Gingrich are likely to bury the hatchet with Romney and work for his election this fall. But it will be difficult for the three men to set aside the vitriol of the primary and paper over the contempt that Santorum and Gingrich still  harbor  for Romney.

Many years ago, it was easier to cover up the flaws of a candidate, whether it was the wealthy William Henry Harrison pretending to have a "log cabin" upbringing or Richard Nixon remaking himself as the "New Nixon" in 1968. But today,  with 24-7 media coverage of the candidates, their real natures come out.

“To the extent that Romney is actually warm, fuzzy, and humorous, his campaign should show him in settings that bring out those qualities,” Sabato said. “Yet it seems like a stretch to me. Romney is Northern chilly--Michigan plus Massachusetts.” But being perceived as warm and fuzzy isn’t everything, and Romney probably is far better off focusing on the economy and Obama’s record than worrying about improving his bag of jokes.