Bloomberg News

Obama Would Face a Familiar Opponent in Romney: Albert R. Hunt

November 21, 2011

Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) -- If Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face each other in the 2012 U.S. election, they might bring the highest combined IQ of any presidential race.

They are super smart men, who quickly absorb data, policy wonks able to analyze complicated choices.

Also, in a business that places a premium on personal and political relations, neither relishes that sort of camaraderie or cajoling; they both appear aloof and spend little quality time with fellow politicians.

There are profound differences between these two likely 2012 nominees. One is a 50-year-old African-American from a broken family, a community organizer who spent a dozen years in the state legislature and Senate, and a moderately liberal Democrat. The other is a 64-year-old Mormon, born to a family of financial and political means, a successful businessman with only four years of government experience, and a moderately conservative Republican.

Yet in style and brain power there are surprising similarities. They both are graduates of Harvard Law School; Obama was the editor of the law review; Romney simultaneously got an MBA from Harvard Business School.

On their signature health-care measures -- Romney’s passed in Massachusetts in 2006, and Obama’s national plan passed in 2010 -- their approaches were alike substantively and politically. Each mastered the details of the problem and the proposals.

‘Wicked Smart’

They both are “wicked smart” says Jonathan Gruber, a health-care economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who advised on both measures, meeting with Romney once and Obama twice.

Each showed a willingness to take a risk, telling their political advisers that if the policy is right, the politics would take care of itself.

And they worked the political channels assiduously. Governor Romney visited the Democratic legislative leaders Robert Travaglini, president of the Massachusetts Senate, and Salvatore DiMasi, speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, at their homes on a Sunday afternoon to make a personal appeal. The president canceled a foreign trip and helped tip the balance for a narrow congressional victory on his health-care proposal.

Both are capable of old-fashioned political schmoozing. Obama hosts a bipartisan group of lawmakers at the White House residence to watch the Super Bowl each year. The teetotaling Romney took staffers, and a couple of Democratic supporters, to a South Boston bar to celebrate his health-care victory.

However, that isn’t their forte. Obama, unlike some of his predecessors, almost never uses the presidential retreat at Camp David to court other politicians. And the White House acknowledges that he rarely has members of Congress to the second floor residence of the White House.

The president has played golf in Washington 44 times, almost always with a small group of Chicago friends or staff loyalists. The only members of Congress he has invited to join him are the Republican speaker of the House, John Boehner of Ohio, for a politically motivated game last July, and the assistant House minority leader, Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat.

Romney also rarely spends weekends or social occasions with other politicians or top supporters. He prefers family and friends, often connected to the Mormon Church.

Some presidents, such as Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan felt comfortable with diverse constituencies. One of the reasons Obama and Clinton, despite their public professions of admiration, feel so coolly about each other is this difference in demeanor.

Political Peers

While Obama and Romney command fierce loyalty from longtime aides, neither much connects with political peers. In the last presidential run, both Senator John McCain and Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took a dislike to Romney, finding him cold and calculating. More than a few Democratic politicians use the term cool or cold to describe the president.

These attitudes are more likely to surface with certain constituencies. Obama often seems less than comfortable when meeting with business executives, causing some of them to privately speculate he doesn’t think their profession is a noble one.

The president sometimes has difficulty conveying empathy for people who are struggling, although he’s better than the Republican frontrunner on this score. On the campaign trail recently, the press captured an encounter between Romney and a woman with disabilities in which he seemed unable to appreciate her aspirations.

The two probable 2012 rivals each bring impressive discipline to their work and a capacity for political growth. Over the course of the 2008 contest, Obama went from struggling novice to polished performer; as a candidate, Romney today is far surer than the version of four years ago.

Rhetoric aside, both are more comfortable with compromise and consensus than confrontation.

Obama, despite criticism from Republicans and some business circles that he’s a left-winger, consistently has shown a willingness to move to the middle: On health care, he turned down a government-run option; on financial regulation reform, he rejected proposals to nationalize the banks and crack down harder on Wall Street; in the current deficit-reduction struggles, the president has, to the dismay of some of his party’s base, been willing to consider cutting spending on Medicare and Social Security.

As governor, Romney displayed some of the same tendencies when working with a Democratic state legislature. As president, he’d be more likely to look for deals than accept a stalemate when it comes to addressing the deficit.

These two have been circling each other for a while. Seven years ago, they were the featured speakers at the winter Gridiron dinner, a forum of Washington journalists. Romney was in the middle of his gubernatorial term and Obama had just been elected to the Senate.

Both speeches, intended to be politically humorous, were smashes. Romney closed his with a song. Obama was so impressed he could pull that off that 15 months later, at the Gridiron spring dinner, he also delivered a song, telling associates his inspiration was Romney’s earlier performance.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

--Editors: Max Berley, Mark McQuillan.

To contact the writer of this column: Albert Hunt in Washington at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.


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