My colleague Dana Milbank catches President Obama pandering — groveling, really — in front of Barnard grads:

He didn’t deliver a cheap applause line. He delivered an entire speech full of them. . . . But Monday’s activities veered into pandering, as Obama brazenly flaunted his feminine mystique.

He cooed in their ears that “we can assume that there were founding mothers whispering smarter things in the ears of the Founding Fathers” and told them, “You can be stylish and powerful, too.” How comforting to know. The speech was beyond saccharine; it was condescending.

Contrast that to one of Mitt Romney’s best and grittiest ads:

The Des Moines Register tells us: “Interviewed for the campaign ad are Jason Clausen, a craftsman who worked on Mason City’s Frank Lloyd Wright-designed hotel but lost his own house and ended up in a homeless shelter; Deborah Ragland, a jobless Webster City woman whose unemployment benefits have run out; and Troy Knapp, an Alden man who lost his job and digs graves to help make ends meet.” Whatever you think of Romney, it is hard not to be moved by these people’s suffering.

Barnard flattery and Iowa suffering is quite a contrast, isn’t it? On one hand, Obama is sucking up to women who graduated from an elite college, who can look forward to a world in which “more and more women are out-earning their husbands” and where woman make up “more than half of our college graduates and master’s graduates and PhDs.” On the other hand is the harsh reality of people suffering under this economy. Which candidate seems out of touch? Which seems like he’s telling people what they want to hear?

Romney’s gritty realism accomplishes two things. First, it pins the economy on Obama. Second, it lets voters know that Romney gets it. That is why the Romney campaign tells us he meets with ordinary families, privately, on the trail. He may be wealthy, but he is trying to make the case that compassion and empathy aren’t the province of only the seven-figure rich (such as the Obamas) and of liberalism.

By necessity, Obama can’t dwell on the grimy reality of this economy and its victims. He’s not going to get away with, more than three years later, fobbing the weak economy on President George W. Bush. But the risk in that continually sucking up to discrete constituencies, whether at Barnard or in Hollywood, and insisting things are really getting better is that he leaves himself open to the charge that he is the one who’s insulated and out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Presidents are understandably insulated from the world. Recently it was reported Obama doesn’t drive any more. He doesn’t deal with traffic, or get put on hold, or deal with a snarly bureaucrat or do any of the ordinary tasks regular people do. That leaves him like his predecessors open to the charge that he operates in a bubble. ( President George H.W. Bush found out this out the hard way with a supermarket scanner.) It’s a potent argument because it is true, especially for this president, who operates in a sycophantic White House and considers critics disingenuous or dumb.

Romney has a class divide to overcome. But, unlike Obama, at least he knows he has to make an effort to understand ordinary people and make sure we see that he understands their plight. Obama, smug in his liberal bona fides, thinks his compassion and empathy are self-evident. The voters may conclude otherwise.