Behind Team Romney's Petty Name-Calling

What Mitt Romney supporters really mean when they call Obama "feckless," Jimmy Carter, and not a grown-up.

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Is President Obama a teenager, "feckless," or a reincarnation of former President Carter?

All three, according to his foes—or maybe just whichever one they manage to get to stick.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

The word "feckless" has been employed repeatedly by Mitt Romney and his supporters to describe Obama's foreign policy, and the use of the word itself is fascinating. It's a rarely-employed word, with a sort of 1950s academic tone to it, and there's got to be a reason the GOP campaign uses it—instead of, say, "misguided" or even "incompetent." It's almost like those elementary subliminal messages we all learned about in psychology classes—the ones where advertisers quickly flash the word "sex" onto a screen, somehow (allegedly) luring unsuspecting consumers to buy the product. The fact that "feckless" is employed by the campaign only in this context suggests they are trying to link the word to Obama's foreign policy approach to the point where it becomes automatic. Kind of like "big labor," which might have been sort of true at one point, but which is just laughable now that less than 12 percent of the workforce is unionized. Still, the phrase sticks and is used commonly.

Then there's the rather desperate attempt to make Americans think Obama is Jimmy Carter. The most recent example of this comes from Romney foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson, who marked the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens by telling the Washington Post that "for the first time since Jimmy Carter, we've had an ambassador assassinated." Williamson was also the one who dismissed criticisms by career diplomat Nicholas Burns by noting that Burns had worked for Carter. He did, and he worked for both Presidents Bush and President Clinton as well.

[Ken Walsh: GOP Sees Ghost of Jimmy Carter]

But perhaps the most insidious attack on Obama is in the comments that Obama is not a "grown-up." Ann Romney is one—but hardly the only person to make this charge. "I'm hearing from so many women that may not have considered voting for a Republican before, that said it's time for the grown-up to come, the man that's going to take this very seriously," Mrs. Romney told CNN's Candy Crowley.

It would be nice to assume, for the sake of a basic belief in human decency, that the term "grown-up" is not a back-door way of referring to the first mixed-race president as "boy." But it does go to a broader issue—that Obama's opponents have never really been able to accept that he is president. On the most extreme end, there are people who do not even believe Obama is a U.S. citizen—or won't go to too much trouble reminding hateful skeptics of the fact that Obama was born in Hawaii. But Republican leaders have not shown the deference to this president usually afforded to commanders in chief. Some of that is a function of the hyperpartisan environment in Washington, with no one, really, being shown common courtesy, let alone deference. But there is something different about the way some Republican talk about Obama, as though he is not only not one of them, but not one of any of us Americans. Saying he's not a "grown-up" is perhaps less hateful, on its face, than calling him a fraud, but it's far more patronizing and disrespectful. And one wonders what qualifies as "grown-up"—trying to make political points on a misinterpretation of a deadly international crisis that was still unfolding?

Obama's a grown-up, and he is president. If Republicans don't like that, they should try their darndest to beat him. But they should do it on the merits, and on something substantive—not on cheap name-calling.

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