A version of this column appeared originally in THE DAILY BEAST
Will Barack Obama’s innate likability turn out to be the decisive factor that keeps him in the White House?
Several polls suggest that the president’s biggest advantage over Mitt Romney involves the strong tendency of Americans to see him as more friendly, accessible, and personally appealing than his GOP challenger. Even with dark clouds surrounding the economy and highly energized, well-funded conservatives preparing to storm the seat of power, Obama strategists view Fortress Likability as the final, secure stronghold that will deliver them from all electoral dangers. The Romney camp counters with arguments that cite several emerging factors sure to undermine Obama’s perceived personality advantage and hope that voters will make their ultimate choice on a more substantive basis.
The recent past certainly indicates a strong popular preference for likable candidates: in the 32 years since 1980, all eight presidential contests have gone to the contender who came across as more genial and down to earth to the press and the public. With his sunny disposition, Ronald Reagan easily dispatched Mr. Malaise himself, Jimmy Carter, and then enjoyed even more smashing success against the dour Walter Mondale.
George H.W. Bush could come across as stiff, inauthentic, and insufferably preppy but he had the great good fortune in 1988 to run against the beetle-browed, grumpy Gus, Michael Dukakis. When he tried for a second term, however, he faced an earthy Arkansan named Bill Clinton, whose winks and nudges about his own, down-home rascality only seemed to make him more endearing to many Americans. Clinton against Dole? No contest in that one when it came to charm and seduction skills.
Though millions of citizens still despise him, George W. Bush also benefited from a likability edge that delivered his back-to-back victories. In one celebrated 2004 poll, the American people chose the incumbent commander in chief over Democratic rival John Kerry as the candidate who’d provide better company while sharing a beer–an ironic advantage considering Bush’s well-advertised teetotaling as a reformed problem drinker. Kerry, like Al Gore before him, conveyed a strikingly supercilious attitude of Ivy League pomposity while W., with his goofy gaffes (“a man has to work hard to put food on his family”), his cowboy swagger, his heart-on-the-sleeve Christian faith, and his West Texas twang, struck people as a good ol’ boy–never mind his membership in the same super-elite Secret Society at Yale that had tapped John Kerry just two years ahead of him.
This contrast between reserve and friendliness, between preening privilege and ordinary-guy accessibility, is supposed to work to President Obama’s advantage in his reelection battle against Mitt Romney. After all, as a fresh-faced “hope-monger,” freshman Senator Obama easily bested the crotchety war hero and Senate fixture John McCain in the personality contest of 2008. This year, a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll showed registered voters choosing Obama as more likable by a 2-to-1 margin, 60 to 30 percent. Three months earlier, an April Washington Post–ABC News Poll gave the president an even wider advantage with 64 percent selecting Obama as the “friendlier, more likable candidate” and only 26 percent choosing Romney as a potential pal.
Mark McKinnon, a one-time strategist for President George W. Bush, told The Washington Post that “likability is keeping Obama in the game at this point. But Romney has a lot of potential to improve his likability numbers, particularly during the convention … Romney hasn’t really revealed much of his personal story or his personality, so he’s got a lot more potential to grow.”
To stifle that potential, forces aligned with the Obama campaign have spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to define Mitt Romney negatively, piling on with an avalanche of hard-hitting ads about his tax returns, his record at Bain Capital, his off-key singing voice, his offshore bank accounts, his wife’s horse, his Jet Ski, and even the tired old tale (laughingly told by Romney’s own sons about a family trip 30 years ago) of the Irish Setter on the roof. A highly critical cover story in Newsweek focused on Romney’s purportedly fatal “Wimp Factor” and in the course of the article even anointed him a “weenie.”
In the end this emphasis on angry and highly personalized attacks (even when they don’t come from the president himself) could end up doing as much damage to Obama’s own likability as to Romney’s. The candidate of hope and change, who promised to transcend the petty bickering of Washington and to usher in a new era of cooperation and harmony, now becomes a desperate battler in a barroom brawl who will pick up any available bottle or table leg to whack his opponent over the head. Polls show a growing perception that the president’s been waging a more negative campaign than his opponent—and it’s not just because he’s spent far more money on attack ads so far.
Sure, Romney’s unleashed his own barrage of harsh advertising and critical speeches, but they all concentrate on Obama’s feckless performance as president: slamming him for economic failures, looming fiscal disaster, broken promises, and bungled foreign policy. Meanwhile, the Democratic assaults on Romney take aim at his personal life, his private-sector career, even his impeccable family. The American people can sense the difference.
For that reason, the all-out attack on Romney’s character has so far proven an all-out bust, with the two candidates locked in a close race that’s barely budged for months. The same USA Today/Gallup Poll that gave President Obama the big edge in likability also provided powerful good news for the Romney camp. The survey posed the question: “Now, I’d like you to think about Mitt Romney’s background in business, including his time as head of Bain Capital. Do you think his business background would cause him to make good decisions or bad decisions as president in dealing with economic problems the U.S. will face over the next four years?”
By a stunning margin of 63 to 29, respondents believed that Romney’s past as a businessman would lead to better decisions. Even 34 percent of Democrats saw his career in the private sector as an advantage. They also gave Romney a 19-point advantage in dealing with the federal budget deficit, a 10-point margin in general handling of the economy, and a 5-point edge in having the characteristics to “get things done.”
While Obama loyalists cling to his nice guy image as a counterweight to Romney’s perceived competence, there’s reason to believe that the president’s surviving likability advantage is not only overrated but profoundly misunderstood. Unlike Clinton and George W. Bush, he doesn’t display an effortless common touch, and he’s hardly an easy-going, down-to-earth guy. His public profile increasingly conforms to the descriptions of his closest acquaintances: he’s a driven, tightly wound, fiercely competitive intellectual. It’s not his race that disqualifies him as the neighbor across the fence, or even his high falutin’ Ivy League education: it’s the sense of anything-to-win desperation, and the inescapable mean streak, that increasingly mar his campaign.
Compare the president with his own running mate: Vice President Joe Biden, even when uttering the most inane, hyperpartisan, or incoherent sentiments, projects the unfailing image of a decent guy. He can be a doofus, most certainly, but it’s hard to avoid the impression of a genial, well-meaning, comfortable old pol with a warm, beating heart. Obama, by contrast, can seem reptilian, positively cold-blooded in his calculation—and especially unappealing when he’s pounding away at low-blow assaults that he doesn’t even seem to believe himself, suggesting that Republicans want to throw kids out of preschool and deny medical care for Alzheimer’s patients.
In the 2008 hope-and-change campaign he largely avoided such strident attacks because the economy then visibly collapsing under George W. Bush made them unnecessary. But this time the economic realities work against the sitting president. The essence of Obama’s likability and magnetism in his first campaign involved his promise to bridge gaps and build solidarity, crashing all the ugly barriers of race, class, gender, and ideology. Instead, his presidency has proven the most polarizing of recent years. He can try to blame his Republican foes for the gridlock and back biting and lack of constructive communication in the nation’s capital, but he can’t deny that they exist. And he’s been the man in charge these last four years.
Romney supporters insist that their man will emerge as more lovable after his convention showcase and the televised debates, but it may matter more to the outcome of the race that Obama seems less lovable—as he will if his campaign persists in its slashing attacks while paralysis in Washington approaches a crisis. When the incumbent is running one of the most ferociously negative campaigns within memory, he can hardly dodge responsibility for the toxic and increasingly dangerous divisions in the nation’s capital.
It’s entirely possible that by the end of an endless and exhausting campaign, both candidates will look distinctly unlikable, so that voters can finally put aside the geniality contest and chose between the off-putting pair based on the best ability to cope with the nation’s dire challenges. Most voters get serious as Election Day approaches, which explains the unbreakable pattern of fringe-party contenders always getting fewer votes in the final tally than last-minute polls predicted. Especially in presidential contests, most Americans feel a sense of responsibility and earnestness by the time they cast their ballots and prove reluctant to waste their precious franchise on empty gestures.
By the same token, personality preferences may play a big role in summer polling three months before the election, but in the fall most voters will make their ultimate decision based less on likability and more on a capacity to tame the deficit. At a moment of inescapable social stress and looming economic catastrophe, one can only hope that the electorate won’t shape its final judgment based on perceived “friendliness” but will focus instead on “the ability to get things done.”