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Mitt Romney’s people problem

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There are a few cardinal rules of leadership. Present a compelling vision of the future and a strategy for how you plan to lead people there. Communicate clearly, honestly and consistently about your agenda and your goals. And never—ever—even appear to be unconcerned about or contemptuous toward the people you lead.

With the release by Mother Jones magazine on Monday of a secret video, Mitt Romney has tripped on that basic tenet. The video, taken during a fundraiser in May, taped Romney saying that the 47 percent of American people who are Obama supporters “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims” and “believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.” He said his job “is not to worry about those people.” He also added: “I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Pundits have described the remarks as cynical, arrogant and even disastrous.

In making these comments, Romney, addressing a room of wealthy donors, seems to have written off the nearly half of Americans he would end up leading were he to win the presidency. However he may have meant it, using words like “victims” and “dependent” sound like thinly veiled criticisms.

And yes, he may have been speaking as a candidate rather than a president when he says his job “is not to worry about those people.” But to some, it could easily leave a different impression, one of a potential president who is not equally concerned for all Americans.

It’s possible that this will be another one of those campaign gaffes that rides a particularly rocky tide of the news cycle and then ebbs away when the next controversy floats in.

After all, Obama’s comments at a private fundraiser back in 2008 about “bitter” voters who “cling to guns or religion” did not keep him from getting elected. At a hastily arranged press conference Monday night, Romney admitted his comments were not “elegantly stated” and were “off the cuff,” saying “of course I want to help all Americans, all Americans have a bright and prosperous future.”

Maybe so. But in a private setting, Romney inadvertently reinforced the narrative—fair or not—that already exists of himself as a wealthy plutocrat. It could leave lasting scars.

There’s a reason President Obama frequently talks about reading 10 letters a night from average Americans struggling in a tough economy. There’s a reason George W. Bush made “compassionate conservatism” a campaign mantra, whatever its real-life application may have been. People want to believe that their leaders care about them, stay up at night worrying about them and (perhaps most important) don’t disdain them—whatever their personal struggles, political philosophies or economic circumstances may be.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

Romney and ‘the vision thing’

Behind Mitt Romney’s Libya statement

The 2012 Service to America winners

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