David Brooks of The New York Times says President Obama "should be getting crushed right now" in presidential election polls. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein says the current read—that the election is about as close as it can get right now—is entirely to be expected.
Who is right? Both, in part.
Brooks reasons that, with the economy in the tank, three fourths of Americans dissatisfied with the direction of the country and key economic indicators refusing to move in the president's direction, support should be pouring into Republican challenger Mitt Romney's camp. Klein says Americans are realistic about President Obama's efforts—and opportunities—to fix the economy, and they're staying with him because they simply like him more.
The polls bear this out. The president enjoys a 29-point edge in "likeability," according to a May 8 Gallup survey. Even those who disagree with him and those who trust Romney more on the economy like Obama more. And, since 1980, every candidate who has had an edge in this category has won.
So when will the "fundamentals," as Brooks calls them, kick in and start to help Romney in the polls? When the candidate finds a way to define himself—when he develops a compelling narrative that Americans can understand, identify with, and, to the extent possible, like.
To this point, what we know of Romney is that he was a high school prankster with a mean streak … "[a]tta girl," unscripted haircuts, cruel pranks against a teacher who could barely see. That, and he put his dog on top of the car for a 12-hour drive on a vacation to Canada. And he likes to be able to fire people. And he shuttered a steel mill in Kansas City, leaving hundreds of workers out of a job as dozens of executives—including himself—walked away with handsome severance packages.
His wife, Ann, she of the two Cadillacs, says he is a "wild and crazy" guy and "super" when he's playing the roles of father and husband. He says she shaved off the rough edges of his earlier years and has made him a better and more, well, likeable man. That's the truth the Romney-ites need to get out. What "wild and crazy" things has he done? How does he make people laugh? Who are his friends? What does his faith mean to him?
He is guarded about these things, and it is surprising how little we know of what makes him tick even though he's been running for president for five years now. But he cannot win—he will not win—unless he and his handlers can open up, create a narrative for him, and shape it to explain what he would do for the country and why. This will involve a level of risk-taking with which he is not known to be comfortable. But Americans don't just want to know what policies one will pursue in the Oval Office. They won't to know what animates that person, what experiences he will draw on, what moral framework he will use to make his most critical decisions.
There is still time for Romney to redefine himself in a more personal, approachable way. Nate Silver of The New York Times is right that we're still in the preseason phase of the campaign and the stories that have emerged about Romney do not appear to have done serious damage to his public image.
And the election is winnable. Incumbency is not the advantage it once was. Presidents seeking re-election have won just three times in six tries since 1976 and are just four-and-four going back to 1968—if you count Lyndon Johnson, who bowed out of the race when he knew he faced defeat.
But the time is now—before the Obama propaganda machine and its handmaidens in the media do more to cement the image of Romney as an aloof son of privilege utterly unconnected to the problems of "Real America."
Because only then—only when Americans come to sense they truly know Romney—can they move beyond Mormonism and dogs on cars to the issues they tell pollsters they care most about. Only then can the conversation turn to unemployment, which peaked at 10.2 percent nationally under President Obama and remains stubbornly north of 8 percent. Only then can they focus on the $5 trillion in debt the president has added to the national balance sheet, the $1 trillion to come from his healthcare plan alone if the Supreme Court doesn't overturn it, and the general sense of national decline he has been unable to stem.
Romney need not overcome the "likeability" disadvantage completely. With the media so firmly committed to the president's re-election, probably only Bill Clinton could achieve that. But he must close the gap. He must give us things to laugh at him and with him about. He must demonstrate how and why the man who ran Bain Capital, the man who relished "creative destruction," the man who gave Obamacare a test run in Massachusetts and who knows of NASCAR only through his acquaintances with various team owners provides the better choice for a more hopeful, more prosperous America.
He doesn't have to be perfect. He doesn't have to be likeable. But he does have to be someone we think we know and understand. If he can accomplish that, the conversation will return to the economy, the crushing federal debt, the arrogance by which Obamacare became part of the national landscape.
And if the war can be fought on that ground, Romney stands a good chance of success.