“So, [Mitt] Romney can use tonight’s debate to fill in those details and finally, for the first time, explain his proposals or readjust his positions. Or he can spend 90 minutes doing what he does best: attacking the president, distorting his own record, and avoiding any and all details on his plans for this country.”
— Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager to President Obama, in a new video urging supporters to use social media to amplify Obama’s attacks on his Republican challenger.
We know President Obama has a personal disdain from Mitt Romney, and tonight he will be hoping to get American voters to share in his contempt for the Republican presidential nominee.
But, just as he struggled with his scorn toward Hillary Clinton in 2008, the president risks showing an unfriendly face to voters.
In a lengthy Politico piece and elsewhere, establishment press outlets have documented Obama’s animosity for Romney, a candidate who the president does not feel is deserving of respect or deference. Obama, who holds himself out as a fierce competitor, has animated his re-election effort not just by his desire to hold on to power for another four years and implement the rest of his agenda but also by a personal grudge.
That has been reflected in Obama’s intensely negative, intensely personal campaign in which the president, who promised a choice between different visions for the future, has mostly sought a referendum on his challenger’s character.
Polls show Romney has survived the onslaught. While Romney’s personal favorability has been permanently locked in the low 40s since Obama’s swing-state negative ad blitz began in the spring, the race has remained close throughout. And, after a slide in recent weeks, Romney is once again in a statistical tie with Obama.
Obama, having been unable to deliver the knockout punch in ads or through the attacks leveled by him and his surrogates, will likely hit the stage in Denver tonight looking to lay Romney out.
Obama’s chances of doing so would be greatly enhanced by Romney’s reported strategy of fact-checking Obama’s attacks. This is the ideal situation for Obama, who would like nothing more than to keep Romney on defense, explaining away inconsistencies in his positions and defending his records as a businessman and as governor of Massachusetts.
The more times you hear Romney say things like “Wait a minute, I want to set the record straight,” or asking moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS for another moment in which to respond to charges leveled by Obama. Any instance in which Romney is pleading for more time will not only reinforce his status as the guy who is not president, but will also be a strong sign that Romney is the defendant and not the prosecutor in this 90-minute trial.
The better lines would be those that reflect what most voters understand: Obama has run a very negative and sometimes, by the president’s own admission, a misleading one.
When Ronald Reagan told Jimmy Carter “there you go again,” he didn’t follow up with a point-by-point refutation of Carter’s attacks, but rather laughed off the incumbent’s attacks and took the opportunity to explain his proposals to the millions watching at home.
Romney, who has been reportedly stocking up on canned lines with which to “zing” the president, would be best served to dismiss Obama’s attacks as more of the typical shenanigans voters expect from politicians and then move on and make his own points. This is not moot court at Harvard Law School, alma mater to both men. Romney cannot win on points.
Both candidates charge that their opponent is short on specifics and both accuse their opponent is running a negative campaign. Most voters would tend to say that they are both right. Seeking the favor of highbrow journalists and pundits who bemoan the dearth of substance in American politics will not help Romney as much as focusing voters on his newly embraced theme of “choice.”
If Romney can restrain himself from being a fact-check machine and make his own points while showing presidential poise, he has the chance to actually put Obama on the defensive.
The president feels Romney is an unworthy adversary and may be inclined to think that answering the charges of a man of whom he thinks so little is beneath him and his station.
When the two men are together for the first time, animosity like that could quickly boil over into something that undercuts the president’s advantage on personal favorability.
Faced with tough questions or whenever someone pierces the bubble of presidential pomp, Obama tends to be peevish. If that someone is Romney, one imagines that it will be hard for Obama to keep his hauteur in check. If Romney is being dismissive of Obama’s attacks, it will be even harder for the president to keep his ego in check.
The last thing Obama wants is to be seen as dismissive or acting entitled to a second term that voters don’t think he has quite earned. They may not be sold on Romney as an alternative, but they certainly aren’t satisfied with Obama. They want to see him hustle for their votes.
The warning sign for Obama will be the number of times in the evening he gets verbal vapor lock.
Obama has a tendency to stammer when he is out of sorts, repeating a single word or sound, often the first-person singular: “I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I, I…” This vocal tic does buy him time to formulate an answer but it also makes him sound like he is all of a dither.
There is nothing any president, especially this one, dislikes more than being disregarded. If Romney can brush off Obama’s attacks as more stuff politicians say, it would likely rattle the president. That would be the Republican’s chance to start landing some shots of his own.