The general election is shaping up as a contest between two remarkably similar men.
Not ideologically. Despite the Newt Gingrich-peddled notion that “there really is no difference” between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, the gulf in political philosophy is enormous.
Both men, left to their own devices, would occupy a centrist place within their own parties. But Obama envisions a far more muscular role for government in general and the federal government in particular. Romney’s faith is primarily — excessively, in my view — in the free market.
Still, assuming that Romney becomes the Republican nominee, the two candidates will share surprisingly similar temperaments and habits of mind. They are different from the standard-issue politician — both are more aloof than gregarious, more cerebral than impassioned.
These similarities could not have been predicted from their entirely different backgrounds. Romney came from wealth; Obama’s mother was for a time on food stamps. Romney idolized his father; Obama scarcely knew his. Romney’s upbringing was defined by his Mormonism; organized religion was not part of Obama’s early life.
Romney’s was a white, suburban childhood out of “Father Knows Best.” Obama’s was multiracial and helter-skelter — in Hawaii and Indonesia, living with his mother or left with his grandparents.
Yet somehow from these different environments emerged two men shaped by a sense of outsiderness.
“From early childhood, he formed his views through observation and analysis, by hanging back as the world unfolded before him,” Michael Kranish and Scott Helman write in “The Real Romney.”
David Maraniss, whose biography, “Barack Obama: The Story,” will be published in June, describes the president in similar terms. Much like his mother, “Obama is an anthropologist — a participant/observer,” Maraniss, a Post associate editor, told me.
Both Obama and Romney exude cool detachment, even insularity, as The New Republic’s Timothy Noah demonstrated with an array of indistinguishable snippets from “The Real Romney” and Jodi Kantor’s “The Obamas.” They are not party animals, in either sense of that phrase — neither extroverted socializers nor partisan champions.
Both men lack the typical politician’s craving for external approval and validation. They exhibit a disdain for the ordinary obligations of political life, whether endlessly posing for photos (Obama) or robotically delivering a stump speech (Romney).
“It is the opinion of some of Romney’s friends,” Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in New York magazine, “that the repetitive business of campaigning simply bores him and that this boredom is responsible for the fairly sizable gap between the charismatic man they know in private and the battery-powered figure who often appears in public.”
Obama, likewise, deems himself above the meet-and-greet aspect of politics. The president, Kantor wrote, “hated to waste time, and . . . schmoozing — like making emotional speeches — was another part of politics he seemed to have decided was mostly fake.”
Indeed, Obama and Romney are less back-slappers than report-readers, technocratic elitists with an abiding faith in the meritocracy. Confronted with a problem, their instincts are to assemble the experts and split the difference.
It is no accident, then, that their health care programs share the distinguishing — perhaps politically disqualifying — feature of requiring individuals to obtain coverage.
Romney was convinced to go for the individual mandate by Democratic economist Jonathan Gruber’s computer modeling. Obama, after savaging Hillary Clinton during the campaign for including a mandate in her plan, briskly switched course, post-election, when his health care advisers made the case that his program wouldn’t work otherwise.
Finally, both men reflect a certain ideological inscrutability, despite years in the public eye.
“To this day, he remains an enigmatic presence to people outside his closest circle, a puzzle whose pieces don’t neatly fit,” Kranish and Helman write of Romney. “Many see in him what they want to see: a centrist or a conservative, an economic wizard or a rapacious capitalist, an adaptable leader or a calculating politician who will do anything to get elected.”
For Obama, that essential mysteriousness — Is he a liberal? A moderate? — has been more of a plus, inspiring voters to pour their hopes into an undefined vessel. He is a self-proclaimed Rorschach test for voters to interpret at will.
The Obama-Romney comparison is admittedly imperfect. Obama’s is a graceful aloofness; he comes off as cool but not needy. Romney is awkward in his aloofness; he tries too hard to connect. The difference between the two candidates is the difference between crooning Al Green and reciting obscure verses of “America the Beautiful.”
Yet the similarities are striking. As the campaign grinds into the general-election phase, these traits will, I predict, become all the more evident and intriguing.