The Likeability Question: Shallowness Wrapped in Election History

Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama debate on October 16, 2012 during the second of thr
Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney and US President Barack Obama debate on October 16, 2012 during the second of three presidential debates at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. AFP PHOTO / Stan HONDA (Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

I've written before about Mitt Romney's likability problem, and you don't need a blogger to tell you that this has been his turd in the punch bowl. Sure, the right praises the man as a hero of private enterprise (which is not entirely without merit), but to your average bus driver or fight choreographer -- you know, folks who don't find private equity very sexy (no offense) -- he remains a stiff caricature of capitalism's dark side.

Likeability (or lack thereof) should never be a disqualifying factor for a political candidate, and I realize there are plenty of superficial halfwits out there who are going to vote for whichever candidate they think is hotter. But there's been a lot of post-debate discussion about how Obama's aggressiveness may have cost him some likeability points. And it's worth looking into.

First, CNN posited that the president's combativeness in Monday night's debate was a double-edged sword: "Obama's aggressive strategy led the debate audience to give him a narrow 51 percent-46 percent edge on leadership, but it may have come at the cost of likeability."

"In his effort to try to put Mitt Romney on the ropes, and to essentially say, 'Hey, this is a guy who doesn't have a lot of knowledge,' if the president came across as somehow sort of smirking at Mitt Romney or being snarky or condescending to him, that may not play well with some of the voters who are already having some questions about the president's likeability."

And finally, there was Obama's old rival Senator John McCain, who wasted no time referring to the president's "arrogance" and "bad taste": "I don't understand why the president seems to want to take these kind of cheap shots," McCain said on MSNBC Tuesday morning. "That's not presidential, and frankly, I kind of resent it."

Now, I'm not going to cry bias and bitch about the media's disparate reporting of "likeability" when the GOP candidate is essentially every guy who ever publicly demeaned you rolled into one repulsively successful and privileged relic of Cold War thinking who believes time spent smiling is time spent winning.

No, I'm not going to do that. Instead, I want to argue that likeability, despite its shallow role in politics since time immemorial, is a criticism to which the president is mostly impervious (Nixon, anyone?). And yes, that includes George W. Bush in his re-election bid, because, like Romney, John Kerry was an obnoxious partisan automaton with few ideas other than "anything but this guy." Bush, on the other hand, had a "record" to defend, and Democrats pounced on it with vigor. It became the centerpiece of their campaign, and they went on the attack with little time spent making their candidate look more attractive (to be fair, the Romney campaign has worked a little harder to show that their candidate is indeed a sentient being). But it didn't work. As reprehensible as Bush's record was, it was not enough to convince Americans to opt for a wax-mold flip-flopping huckster.

So... doth history repeat thyself?

A post-debate CNN poll found Romney came across as more likable than usual, posting a 47 percent "likeability" score (whatever that even means), but it was still less than Obama's 48 percent. On a broader scope, the recent Reuters/Ipsos poll showed the president with a 22-point "likability" lead over Romney. He also had a 24-point command on the question, "Which candidate would be more fun to meet in person?"

Well guess what? Just two months before the 2004 election, a Zogby/Williams poll found 57 percent of undecided voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry (even though Bush stopped drinking in 1986). The data are not identical, but they are comparable. Clearly, challengers need to be more likeable than incumbents, even if the incumbent started two wars on a credit card, turned a surplus into a deficit, and set the playing field for the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression.

So Romney can talk about Obama's "record" all he wants -- and he should. We need some substantive debate about how to move the country forward. But, in the opinion of this writer, it's not going to fill in for his utterly nonexistent charm. I wish America could vote for Obama because of his record and not in spite of it; I'm mostly proud of the president's record (mostly), but we're all too shallow to allow something like "performance" corrupt our precious vote. Really, I wish Americans didn't vote this way. I wish they voted with their brains instead of their hearts, or with their hearts instead of their dicks, or with some other anatomical device instead of some other symbolic orifice. But they mostly don't, and I still think it will be Romney's undoing.