Barack Obama is cool. Mitt Romney is not. What does it mean for 2012?
Here’s a fundamental fact of the 2012 presidential race: President Obama is cool. Mitt Romney isn’t.
Romney praises the height of trees. He sings “Who let the dogs out”. He fakes that a New Hampshire waitress grabbed his behind.
At first glance, the coolness gap between the two parties’ nominees would seem to favor President Obama. After all, who would you rather vote for: the coolest guy in school or Alex P. Keaton? (Yes, we are exaggerating. But, you get the point.)
That cursory glance, however, underestimates the political complexity of the “coolness” factor as it relates to President Obama and his bid for a second term this fall. The reality is that Obama’s “coolness” can (and will) be used against him by Republicans who will seek to paint him as all style no substance — someone who talks a good game but doesn’t deliver.
“If voters think on election day that Obama is the cool one, but Romney is the competent one, Obama will lose,” said Mike Murphy, a California-based Republican media consultant. “We are electing a president to get us out of tough economic times, not a prom king.”
Listen closely to what Romney said in his New Hampshire speech last night celebrating his victories in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware and it’s clear he is driving that same message
“Four years ago Barack Obama dazzled us in front of Greek columns with sweeping promises of hope and change,” said Romney. “But after we came down to earth, after the celebration and parades, what do we have to show for three and a half years of President Obama?”
Put even more simply: Sure Obama is cool. But what has electing the cool guy gotten you over the past four years? (This line of attack is a corollary to the broader likability strategy that Romney seems to be putting into place as he preps for the general election against Obama.)
In a way, the attack on coolness dates back to the 2008 general election when Arizona Sen. John McCain briefly gained traction with a TV ad that compared Obama to celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears.
At the time Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s campaign, said of the “celebrity” ad:
It’s beyond dispute that [Obama] has become the biggest celebrity in the world. It’s a statement of fact. It’s backed up by the reality of his tour around the world. He has many fans. The question that we are posing to the America people is this, ‘Is he ready to lead yet?’
Ultimately, that attack — while cutting — wound up not being the sort of game-changer (with apologies to Mark Halperin and John Heilemann) that the McCain campaign had hoped it might be.
People — Democrats, independents and many Republicans — ultimately saw Obama’s celebrity (and coolness) as positive attributes in the 2008 election. He was someone they could get excited about, someone they could be proud to tell their kids they voted for. His lack of experience on the national and international stage was an afterthought.
The question for Romney — and Republicans more broadly — is whether the last three and a half years have fundamentally altered that equation with voters. Has Obama’s coolness and celebrity turned into a negative as the country has slogged through a slower-than-expected economic recovery?
Polling provides few answers. Obama’s likability remains high and, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll 50 percent of people approved of the job he was doing while 45 percent disapproved.
On the other hand, that same poll showed just 44 percent approving of how Obama has handled the economy. Forty seven percent said they trusted Romney more on the economy while 43 percent chose Obama.
In 2008, Obama had it all: He was not just cool but preaching a mantra of competence that appealed to people after eight years of George W. Bush .
In 2012, Republicans believe that Romney wins the competence argument. But can they play the coolness card in their favor too?