After his primary night sweep on Tuesday, Mitt Romney unveiled a new line of attack against the president. Reminding voters that Barack Obama has claimed that "he is doing an historically great job," Romney declared in a bemused tone, "It's enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One—surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you're great and you're doing a great job—it's enough to make you think that you might become a little out of touch."
This game of out-of-touch football represents a fascinating political ploy. Romney, the Man from Bain Capital, has been mocked by Democrats: He considers $360,000 in speaking fees to be chump change and is adding an elevator for cars to his California dream house. So in a clever bit of bounce-back rhetoric, Romney claimed that Obama is even more cocooned from reality, surrounded by White House sycophants and basking in his hubris.
Beyond the schoolyard taunts ("What sticks to me, double sticks to you"), there is a surprising level of truth to both sides of the argument. Even more surprising for politics, the issues embedded in this back-and-forth directly relate to life in the Oval Office in 2013, no matter who is President Out-of-Touch.
The line about Obama swooning over his own historical greatness is predicated on what may be the most tin-eared presidential remark in memory. In an outtake from his interview last December with "60 Minutes," Obama said, "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president—with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln." Ignore, for the moment, that the Obama claim neglects Woodrow Wilson (passage of a federal income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve during his first year in office) and blithely assumes that his health care law will pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court. What remains stunning is that Obama actually sees himself in these Mount Rushmore terms—and was willing to say it with the TV cameras rolling.
Romney was also dead-on in his observation about true believers aboard Air Force One. But the problem transcends Obama—and speaks to a dilemma that afflicts all modern presidents.
In an important and sadly neglected 1970 book, "The Twilight of the Presidency," George Reedy compared the White House to Versailles, with the president as the Sun King and his aides as royal courtiers. Reedy, who was Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, knew something about presidents who demand fawning staffers. But since the entire West Wing revolves around the whims of the president (even a personally modest man like Gerald Ford), it is inevitable that aides learn that the way up is through sucking up. The secret, Reedy explained, is for the ambitious staffer "to be present ... when 'good news' arrives and to be certain that someone else is present when the news is bad."
So would President Mitt Romney be uniquely able to resist the blandishments of White House flatterers?
A few intriguing clues can be found in the latest installment of the Politico e-book chronicle of the presidential campaign, "Playbook 2012: Inside the Circus—Romney, Santorum and the GOP Race." (The first, "Playbook 2012: The Right Fights Back," was released in December.) In writing a campaign history on the fly, Mike Allen and Evan Thomas are deeply beholden to anonymous campaign staffers, whose often self-serving blind quotes power the narrative. That caveat does not invalidate the reporting of "Inside the Circus," but it does explain my tentativeness in deriving ironclad conclusions from the Politico e-book.
In planning a second run for the White House, Romney's top advisers were obsessed with erasing the candidate's flip-flopper image. So with an emphasis on "authenticity" (a favored buzzword of handlers who specialize in concocting images), Romney was advised "to embrace his wealth as a measure of success," Allen and Thomas write. "Romney, who is by and large surrounded by other rich people, was told that he should not pretend to be anything other than what he was."
The problem, now that Romney's main adversary is Obama, is that this I-am-rich-hear-me-roar strategy fuels Democratic populist appeals. Even worse politically (and this may reflect the candidate's natural awkwardness rather than the schemes of his strategists) is Romney's inability to connect with voters whose incomes are below McMansion levels. An emblematic moment in the Romney campaign came when the candidate flew to Florida two days before the Michigan primary in order to attend the Daytona 500. But when asked in the inevitable sports interview about how closely he follows auto racing, Romney replied honestly, "Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans, but I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners."
That answer deserves to be parsed. In a single sentence, Romney implied that his side trip to Florida was a political stunt since he does not follow racing "closely" and underscored that his social set is made up of wealthy team owners. It is hard to do that kind of two-part political damage with just 20 words.
The co-authors of "Inside the Circus" flick at a problem that seems to afflict all presidential candidates who lack the common touch: "Romney had become overprogrammed." Allen and Thomas quote the inevitable nameless Romney insider who says shrewdly, "In his head has been put this heuristic—'I've got to parse everything because people are worried.' And so, when you do that, you don't talk right, because you're thinking about every word."
All this is reminiscent of a recent Democratic presidential nominee. No, not John Kerry, who may share Romney's stiffness and wealth, but never had to prove his liberalism to his party's base. The closest analogue to Romney is actually (brace yourself, Republicans) Al Gore. During the 2000 campaign, the spontaneity-challenged Gore told ad-maker Carter Eskew that he constantly felt like a character in the Spike Jonze movie "Being John Malkovich," with "all those voices in my head telling me what to do."
That is why—despite the long slog until November—the best preparation for being president is probably running for president. For if Mitt Romney cannot get the voices of his handlers out of his head while he is still a candidate, he will probably be equally afflicted by sycophants and true believers if he gets to the Oval Office.
Walter Shapiro, who is covering his ninth presidential campaign, writes the "Character Sketch" column for Yahoo News, examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates. He is also a special correspondent for the New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD.
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