Feature

Obama vs. Romney: The battle to define each other

Campaign strategists plan to give voters a clear choice of philosophies and styles.

“Chicago, we have a problem,” said Mary Kate Cary in USNews.com. The last few months were undoubtedly heady ones at President Obama’s hometown headquarters, with unemployment waning, the president’s approval rating climbing back toward 50 percent, and polls showing a consistent 7 to 9 point lead over presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney. But for Obama, April has been a cruel month. A disappointing jobs report and fresh concerns about Europe have renewed fears that the economic recovery is stalling. Last week, polls showed that Obama’s lead in the presidential race was melting away, with the CBS/New York Times poll showing a tie, and Gallup even putting Romney ahead. If I were Obama, “I’d be hitting the panic button.” The General Services Administration and Secret Service scandals have also hurt Obama, said Steve Lombardo in HuffingtonPost.com, deepening disgust with government and adding to the “throw the bums out” fervor. With more grim economic news looking likely, “the trend is toward Romney.”

Poll trends come and go, said Michael Tomasky in TheDailyBeast.com, but Obama has an advantage over Romney that will serve him well in November: People like him. And most voters don’t have very warm feelings toward the GOP’s plastic plutocrat. When pollsters ask voters about the candidates’ personal qualities—such as compassion, consistency, empathy for the poor and middle class—Obama not only beats Romney, “he just slaughters him,” by more than 20 percentage points. That gap is only likely to widen as people take a harder look at the two candidates. In every election since 1980, said Ed Kilgore in WashingtonMonthly.com, the candidate with the best net favorability rating in November has won. If Romney can’t “eventually start showing some personal appeal outside the universe of Republicans,” he’s doomed. 

Likability isn’t everything, said William McGurn in The Wall Street Journal. Yes, Obama is a decent guy with an attractive wife and children he clearly loves. But 64 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track, and 76 percent think we’re still in a recession. In 1980, lots of Americans thought Jimmy Carter was “a good and decent man,” but Ronald Reagan “zeroed in” on his incompetence, and we know how that election turned out. To win, Romney needs to hammer home the message that Obama is in over his head, and make a pragmatic, respectful case that “someone else could do a better job.” 

The Obama campaign already has planned its counterattack, said Glenn Thrush in Politico.com. On the advice of the Democrats’ “campaign whisperer,” Bill Clinton, Obama’s message-makers will no longer portray Romney as an untrustworthy “flip-flopper”; instead, they will hold him to the “severely conservative” persona he adopted during the primaries. Romney, Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe is now saying, is “the most conservative nominee” since Barry Goldwater, with extremist positions on tax cuts for the rich, abortion, and immigration. The goal is to convince swing voters that Romney is a dangerous right-winger. In the end, voters will have a clear choice of philosophies and styles, said Ed Rogers in WashingtonPost.com. It will be “the president, cool and cerebral, vs. the chipper, happy, and matter-of fact Romney. The aloof professor vs. the can-do businessman.” People may like Obama, “but if they want a new, fresh start,” he could be out of a job.

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