Sunday, April 29, 2012

Will Obama’s “Cool Kid” Strategy Backfire?

by Jonathan S. Tobin

Rather than seeking to challenge President Obama for the title of the “cool kid” in the race, the Mitt Romney campaign will seek to win the adult vote. That’s the spin from Romney senior advisor Eric Fehrnstrom, whom Politico quotes as telling a Washington gathering yesterday that his candidate won’t seek to top the president when it comes to “slow jamming the news,” as Obama did this past week on the “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” show. That’s a good idea, because although Obama may not be as cool as he or his idolaters think he is, the incredibly square Romney isn’t likely to convince anyone that he is hip. The real question is whether coolness will matter as much in 2012 as it did in 2008.

As Politico notes, the John McCain campaign also found itself facing a coolness deficit vis-à-vis Obama and sought to brand the Democrat as a mere “celebrity” that wasn’t fit for the White House. But in a year in which an extraordinary turnout of young and minority voters besotted with the “hope and change” mantra were a key factor in the outcome, the attempt to make the election a contest between a war hero and a celebrity backfired, as the latter won easily. Writing the day after the White House Correspondents Dinner, an event whose purpose seems to be to link politics with celebrity, the notion that sober policy may trump coolness may seem heretical. Yet after four years of an ineffectual administration with few achievements to its credit, coolness may not be as important as the fact that the economy has stalled again.

Critics of Fehrnstrom’s strategy rightly note that it may be easier for Democrats to demonize the wealthy GOP nominee than it will be for the Republicans to make Americans think ill of Obama. Yet that challenge cuts both ways. By attempting to revisit his 2008 style, the president may learn that the “cool kid” trick doesn’t play as well the second time around.

The coolness factor isn’t so much a presidential qualification as it is may be a prerequisite for a high turnout of the liberal voters who form the Democrats’ base. President Obama has always been better at campaigning than governing, so the return to the late night comedy shows is a natural for him. Given the liberal bias of these venues, they are also a safe haven for a president who can’t run on his record.

Though Fehrnstrom is hoping that the grown ups rather than the cool kids will predominate in 2012, what the GOP is counting on is an electorate that is more fed up with the country’s fiscal illness than the president’s celebrity quotient. Given the general dissatisfaction with Obama’s job performance and the prospect of continued slow growth in everything except gas prices, this is not an unreasonable expectation.

While Republicans are right that few outside of the chattering classes care what Obama said last night at the “nerd prom” or even what the actresses who were recruited to show up at the event wore, the president won’t lose in November because of a backlash against his faux hipster persona. If Romney is to prevail it will be because Obama will be seen as a failed president. The outcome in November will be decided strictly on the basis of perceptions of the economy, not which of the two candidates is the coolest.

Jonathan S. Tobin


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