Possibly the most telling statement uttered during a presidential campaign was James Carville’s remark, “It’s the economy stupid!” back in 1992. The economy has become the presidential winning indicator — with candidates overemphasizing their economic solutions and attacking their opponent’s lack of solutions.
But is it really about the economy?
If it were about the economy (regardless of its slight improvements), with unemployment at 8.1%, Obama would be doing worse and Romney better. History has shown us, as we are all aware by now, that no president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection with unemployment over 8%. Or is it about something more important?
Perhaps Carville’s comment should be taken within its context: Bill Clinton will fix the economy because Bill Clinton is a man who spews policy out like it’s a Grimm’s fairy tell.
The problem is, this is 2012, not 1992. The incumbent is not a wealthy, legacy, New Englander being challenged by an everyday man raised by his single mother. No, the everyday man raised by his mother is the incumbent and the challenger is the wealthy, legacy, New England CEO.
To win on the “economy,” a candidate cannot wage intellectual arguments about taxes and institutional failures, but instead by telling the story of everyday Americans trying to push through obstacles — a story that Bill Clinton told so well, because he connected. It is a story that that President Obama has only just started to tell, and a story that Mitt Romney has ignored.
The burden is not in proving who is better at fixing the economy. The burden is in selling who can fix the economy. Both candidates have to overcome the burden of proof.
In this data-driven campaign world, presidential candidates have relied on numbers to dictate their messages to the key demographics they need to win. They talk about the economy in terms that relate to that one audience, i.e. Romney’s "47%" comment to his wealthy donors. They’ve both stressed their economic issues and they have let their surrogates fight the social debates to maintain the energy of their bases. But what both presidential candidates have failed to do effectively is to be trustworthy and likable.
Obama, once seen as charismatic and engaging, is now flat, packaged and predictable (more likable than Romney, yet less likable than any other president at this point in his presidency). Robot-Romney has spewed conflicting messages to each of his bases — one minute as a fat cat CEO, another as a wholesome country bumpkin. Neither is authentic.
But neither candidate has spent enough time building that trust — including the president. Neither candidate is using their data — not to prove a point — but to aid them in telling a story. Neither candidate is telling a story of the future and how he is the candidate that feels their pain and will fix it.
The Romney campaign has made an egregious error by trying to prove too much. Romney, who we all know is privileged, should’ve taken a tip from the Kennedy clan in owning his identity — his privileged upbringing — but feeling responsible to give back.
Unlike many, I do not think that Romney’s 47% comment revealed his true nature. I think it merely showed how unwilling he is to be himself; how much he is listening to his advisors who are saying “stick to the economy.”
Instead he should be saying:
“Yes, I had a privileged upbringing. Yes, I come from a political legacy family -- but a family that stressed public service. A family that stressed giving back. A family — of Mormon roots — that prides itself in giving. That is who I am. That is who I will be as a President. I’ve been blessed, but I believe there is a responsibility given to me with my blessings.” Most importantly, “my record as a Governor shows that I care deeply about the middle class.”
We all know Romney is ridiculously rich. We all know he grew up going to boarding schools and has never had to deal with the pains of an average working man. Yet, he won’t own it. And what happens when someone lies? We don’t trust him. We don’t trust him as a friend, and we certainly don’t trust him with our futures.
Mitt Romney has been preparing for this moment his whole life. From moments working on his father’s presidential campaign, to his private and Ivy League schooling, gubernatorial and senate races — this man was ready for this presidential race.
For sure, this man knows how to run.
But no, Romney has not owned his true identity, an identity which is actually rooted in hard work, family values and assisting the less fortunate.
My advice for Romney in these last weeks until the election: show us that you care. Embrace your identity. If we believe who you are, we can connect. We will trust you. Trust you with ... yes, our economy. But, trust takes time to build. For Romney, it may be too late.