Likability Matters: Why Obama Needs to Stop Praising Romney

Likability Matters: Why Obama Needs to Stop Praising Romney

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One of my favorite episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, is entitled, “The Two Bartletts.” It contains the following dialogue:

Toby Ziegler, (Toby) “Sir, I don’t think I need to tell you that the level of respect with which the staff speaks of you doesn’t change, depending on whether or not you’re in the room.”

President Bartlet, (Bartlet) “But?”

Toby, “Well, there’s always been a concern about the two Bartlets. The absent-minded professor with the ‘Aw, Dad’ sense of humor. Disarming and unthreatening. Good for all time zones. And the Nobel Laureate. Still searching for salvation. Lonely, frustrated. Lethal.”

Bartlet, “You’re gonna sing a country western song?”

Toby, “The one whose father never liked him because he was too smart.”

Bartlet, “This stopped being fun for me a little while ago.”

Toby, “Sir?”

Bartlet, “It was actually never fun for me. I was just being polite.”

Toby, “Your father used to hit you, didn’t he, Mr. President?”

Bartlet, “Excuse me?”

Toby, “Your father used to hit you, sir?”

Bartlet, “Yeah.”

Toby, “Not like a spanking.”

Bartlet, “He hit me. Why?”

Toby, “He punched you.”

Bartlet, “I’m done being polite now.”

Toby, “He did it because you made him mad, but you didn’t know why.”

Bartlet, “Toby, it was a complicated relationship. Can I help you?”

Toby, “It was because you were smarter than he was.”

Bartlet, “It was a complicated relationship.”

Toby, “He didn’t like you, sir. That’s why he hit you. That’s why people hit each other. He didn’t like you. You were smarter than he was.”

Bartlet, “Why are we talking about this?”

Toby, “So maybe if you get enough votes, win one more election, maybe your father will…”

Bartlet, “You have stepped way over the line, and any other President would have your ass on the sidewalk right now!”

Toby, “Yes, sir.”

Bartlet, “They would’ve had you on the sidewalk a long time ago. I don’t know what the hell goes on in a Brooklyn shrink’s office, but get it the hell out of my house!”

Toby, “Thank you, Mr. President.”

In this scene, a fictional Democratic Party President is accused of having a troubled relationship with his biological father, and concurrently existing as a symbol of hope and change, a sitcom dad with near-universal appeal, and an accomplished scholar whose obvious intelligence isolates him from most-everyone.

Who does that sound like to you?

If you said President Obama, you’re spot on.

If you said former-President Clinton, ding, ding, ding, you’re on the big board.

If you thought of the words, “Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man. And man can be as big as he wants. No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings. Man’s reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable—and we believe they can do it again.”

Or, “No government or social system is so evil that its people must be considered lacking in virtue… Let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Then you guessed former President Kennedy, and you win the grand prize.

Democrats love Aristotelian tragic heroes who paradoxically try to inhabit the legacies of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Motivated reasoning allows the dampening of the cognitive dissonance that arises when one juxtaposes the “Sage of Monticello” with “Old Hickory.”

But just as fictional TV Commander-In-Chief had to confront his demons to be great, so must President Obama. He has to be willing to risk being hated for the sake of all of us.

American voters found out a lot of things in Wednesday’s (October 3, 2012) debate.

The first is that Mitt Romney said many, many, many untrue things—just ask Michael Arceneaux, Michelle Goldberg, Drew Joseph, David R. Baker, Joe Garofoli, Politifact, etc.

The second is that Rob Portman proved to be a better debate coach than John Kerry. Portman prepared George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, as well as John McCain in 2008. He’s done this before, and he’s learned from his mistakes. Portman began intensive multi-hour sessions with Romney one full month before the first debate. The routine included not only study sessions, and mock debate exchanges. But also debriefing sessions where Romney advisers sat in a circle, reviewing mock debate tapes and transcripts, tweaking scripted answers for maximum sound-bite friendly rhetorical impact, and altering tone, body language, and style to improve likability.

Kerry’s only experience in preparing for debates was the time he spent preparing himself in 2004.

If you’re on the President Obama debate preparation team and someone comes to you with the suggestion that John Kerry, (or the most influential members of his team) former-Vice-President Gore, (or the most influential members of his team) or former-President Carter (or the most influential members of his team) should work with President Obama before the next debate. Just Say No.

The third is that President Obama (and the most influential members of his team) hold that his biggest advantage over Mitt Romney is the strong tendency of Americans to see him as more friendly, accessible, and personally appealing than his GOP challenger.

Gabriel Debenedetti writes in Reuters, “It’s not just that, as anyone who has followed this race knows, President Obama claims a majority of respondents on the question, ‘Which candidate is more likable?’—52 percent among men and 51 percent among women. What must concern the Romney campaign is how low the favorable response to that question is for their candidate. At 24 percent for men and women, it is lower even than the combined number of ‘neithers’ and ‘don’t knows.’ The same pattern holds for the question, ‘Who would be most fun to meet in person?’ Men chose Obama by 48 percent, women by 47, while Romney’s numbers—21 percent of men and 19 percent of women—evoke the popular phrase, ‘They’re just not that into you’…”

The problem is that President Obama, and his surrogates, have said over and over how affable, well intentioned, and devoted to his family Mitt Romney is. The 2012 Democratic National Convention was a prime example of this. Randy Johnson, whose life was undone when Romney’s Bain Capital took over his place of employment began his remarks by saying, “I don’t think Mitt Romney is a bad man. I don’t fault him for the fact that some companies win and some companies lose. That’s a fact of life.” Former-President Clinton added to the narrative by saying, “[Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan] love their families and their children… They convinced me they were honorable people who believe what they’ve said and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made.”

As recently as the Monday before their first debate, the Associated Press quoted President Obama as saying, “I think Governor Romney obviously has achieved extraordinary success with his businesses, and he’s obviously very focused on achieving the presidency. He cares deeply about his family, and I think he cares deeply about his faith.”

What’s wrong with this picture? If your chief advantage is that you’re likable and the other guy isn’t, why the hell would you go out of your way to try to help him out in that department? The very reason why likability matters to voters is that it makes you seem more likely to do the right thing, even if you don’t always say something in the right way.

Lou Cannon writes in Real Clear Politics, “The public gave Reagan the benefit of a doubt for a dubious remark. The same could be said of Obama. He’s aloof—his critics say ‘arrogant’—but, like Reagan, Obama is skillful at spoofing the opposition. Obama recently quipped that Republicans are so enamored of tax cutting they believe it can improve one’s sex life. Reagan said he wasn’t worried about the deficit because it was big enough to take care of itself… Reagan was a transformational as well as likable president… Obama hasn’t reached such lofty heights and he [has] realized that Americans are disappointed that he hasn’t done better at alleviating unemployment or reviving the housing market… [Still] the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derided by Republicans as ‘Obamacare’ and advocated and signed into law by Obama, is a significant achievement, like it or not. When it comes to health care, Obama succeeded where other presidents from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton tried and failed… [Unfortunately, even] 24 hours is a long time in the life of a politician…[and] there are 800,000 fewer Democratic voters in the eight closest swing states [than there were in 2008].”

President Obama (and the most influential members of his team) hold that likability is the key to reelection because in every election since 1984, the candidate viewed as more likable won. The problem is that the President isn’t running on, “Who would you rather have a beer with?” He isn’t doubling down on being determined and resolute. He’s not telling voters, “I’m the decider.” He doesn’t have an ad in which a phone rings at 3 AM, casting doubt on Mitt Romney’s judgment—an image that could be easily reinforced by an empty chair on a stage. Instead, the President has put all of his eggs in one basket under the banner, “Forward.” This is the standard the President has defined for himself, and therefore this is the standard his reelection campaign must meet. He needs voters to believe the country is on the right track.

But when asked if the country is headed in the right direction under President Obama’s leadership, less than one third of Gallup poll respondents answer in the affirmative. Asked the same question when George W. Bush ran for reelection in 2004, and Bill Clinton ran for reelection in 1996, 41% said yes. Asked the same question when Ronald Reagan ran for reelection in 1984, 61% said yes.

This is the statistic that should most trouble President Obama and his reelection team. Regardless of whatever anyone else says, the President needs to use the last month of the campaign, and the final two debates, to explain why and how he put us on the right track. He’s got to do this, even if it means his likability takes a hit. Otherwise, Romney wins.

Ruth Marcus writes in the Washington Post, “Romney’s challenge (changing voters’ image of himself) is less daunting than Obama’s (changing voters’ perceptions of the economy)… Romney’s challenge with voters may be similar to that of Ronald Reagan in 1980, except that Romney needs to cross a threshold of minimum likability rather than that of competence… Set the bar at Romney proving himself ‘acceptable’ to voters… rather than persuading voters to ‘swoon’ for him, as they did for Obama in 2008. In other words, Romney doesn’t have to make himself likable. Just likable enough.”

Nevertheless, there is hope.

President Obama could begin by reviewing what President Kennedy, said about the role of Executive, “There are greater limitations upon our ability to bring about a favorable result than I had imagined… And I think that is probably true of anyone who becomes President, because there is such a difference between those who advise or speak or legislate, and between the man who must select from the various alternatives proposed and say that this shall be the policy of the United States. It is much easier to make the speeches than it is to finally make the judgments…The President bears the burden of the responsibility quite rightly… When I talked to members of the Congress… when we confronted them… with the evidence… in looking at the various alternatives, the advantages and disadvantages of action… I think that we took the right one…

We are going to have twice as many people trying to go to college… That means we have to build as many buildings in 10 years as we built the whole of our country’s history. Then you have got these millions… who are dropping out of school, who are unskilled, at a time when unskilled—when skilled labor is needed, and not unskilled. So we need money for vocational training to train them in skills, to retrain workers, to provide assistance funds for colleges, and then to provide assistance to those who are going to get doctorates, higher advanced in engineering, science, and mathematics. We have a severe shortage there… So all this requires funds, but it is all in controversy. Some people feel the Federal Government should play no role, and yet the Federal Government, since the land grant act and back to the Northwest Ordinance, has played a major role. I think the Federal Government has a great responsibility in the field of education. We can’t maintain our strength industrially, militarily, scientifically, socially, without very well educated citizenry. And I think the Federal Government has a role to play… Unfortunately, we have come close to getting assistance to education passed, but we have not been successful…

It is very easy to defeat a bill in the Congress. It is much more difficult to pass one… We are all concerned as citizens and as parents and all the rest, with all the problems we have been talking about tonight. They are all the problems which if I was not the President, I would be concerned about as a father or as a citizen… But I must say after being here… and having the experience of the Presidency, and there is no experience you can get that can possibly prepare you adequately for the Presidency… I have a good deal of hope for the United States… This country… the great means of defending first the world against the Nazi threat, and since then against the Communist threat… We are in a strong position… That is a pretty good record for a country with 6 percent of the world’s population… I think we ought to be rather pleased with ourselves this Christmas.”

And President Obama’s debate preparation team would be wise to review another of my favorite episodes of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. Entitled, “Game On,” it contains the following exchanges:

Toby Ziegler, (Toby) “What do you think?”

Josh Lyman, “Well if we lose because of a ten-word answer, then I’m quitting show business.”

Toby, “What do you think?”

C.J. Cregg, “I think it depends who shows up. If it’s Uncle Fluffy, we’ve got problems. If it’s the President, in his last campaign, his last debate, for the last job he’ll ever have… if the President shows up, I think it’ll be a sight to see, I mean a sight to see. What do you think?”

Toby, “I think you’re going to enjoy yourself…”

***

Robert Ritchie, (Ritchie) “Let the states decide. Let the communities decide on health care, on education, on lower taxes, not higher taxes. Now, he’s going to throw a big word at you—‘unfunded mandate.’ If Washington lets the states do it, it’s an unfunded mandate. But what he doesn’t like is the federal government losing power. But I call it the ingenuity of the American people.”

Moderator, “President Bartlet, you have 60 seconds for a question and an answer.”

Josiah Bartlet, (Bartlet) “Well, first of all, let’s clear up a couple of things. ‘Unfunded mandate’ is two words, not one ‘big word’… There are times when we’re fifty states and there are times when we’re one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn’t fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights. You think states should do the governing wall-to-wall. That’s a perfectly valid opinion. But your state of Florida got $12.6 billion in federal money last year– from Nebraskans, and Virginians, and New Yorkers, and Alaskans… 12.6 out of a state budget of $50 billion, and I’m supposed to be using this time for a question, so here it is: Can we have it back, please?”

Ritchie, “And the partisan bickering. Now, I want people to work together in this great country. And that’s what I did… I brought people together—and that’s what I’ll do as your President. End the logjam, end the gridlock, and bring Republicans together with Democrats, ‘cause Americans are tired of partisan politics.”

Moderator, “Mr. President?”

Bartlet, “Actually, what you’ve done… is bring the right together with the far right. And I don’t think Americans are tired of partisan politics; I think they’re tired of hearing career politicians dis partisan politics to get a gig. I’ve tried it before, they ain’t buying it. That’s okay, though… But if you’re troubled by it, Governor, you should know, in this campaign, you’ve used the word ‘liberal’ seventy-four times, in one day. It was yesterday.”

Bartlet, “No, the question is: Should we focus on 90% of the kids, who go to public school, or give parents money from the public-school budget to send their kids to private school at a time when private schools are even turning kids away who can afford it? Public schools are going to be the best schools in the country. They’re gonna be cathedrals. The answer is a change in the way we finance schools!”

Moderator, “Governor Ritchie, many economists have stated that the tax cut, which is centerpiece of your economic agenda, could actually harm the economy. Is now really the time to cut taxes?”

Ritchie, “You bet it is. We need to cut taxes for one reason—the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does.”

Moderator, “Mr. President, your rebuttal.”

Bartlet, “There it is… That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword. Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many un-nuanced moments in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words. I’m the President of the United States, not the President of the people who agree with me. And by the way, if the left has a problem with that, they should vote for somebody else.”

Will Bailey, “I thought he was going to have to fall all over himself trying to be genial.”

Sam Seaborn, “So did we. But then, we were convinced by polling that said he was going to be seen as arrogant no matter what performance he gave in the debate. And then, that morning at 3:10, my phone rings, and it’s Toby Ziegler. He says, ‘Don’t you get it? It’s a gift that they’re irreversibly convinced that he’s arrogant ’cause now he can be.’ If your guy’s seen that way, you might as well knock some bodies down with it.”

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