What makes Obama and Romney tick?

Obama is a loner, a "Moviegoer," who surprised the author in what he turned out to be like as president. With Romney, what you see is what you get, a figure out of the 1950s like his dad.
Crosscut archive image.

Obama-Romney voting in the 30th Legislative District

Obama is a loner, a "Moviegoer," who surprised the author in what he turned out to be like as president. With Romney, what you see is what you get, a figure out of the 1950s like his dad.

It's hard to believe that we're only a bit more than four months away from decisions about those who will govern us at federal, state, and local level next January.

Most voters find it hard to distinguish good policy ideas from bad.  Mainly, when it comes to executive jobs such as the presidency or governships, their votes in November will amount to referenda on the incumbencies.   In the presidential election many issues will be raised but, in the end, voters will go "yes" or "no" on President Obama's stewardship of the domestic economy and on his performance in keeping the country safe.  Challenger Mitt Romney's job will be to present himself as a responsible, acceptable alternative in the event that the verdict is "no" on Obama.

Right now we are at the early-summer phase in which both candidates are trying to define themselves and their opponents. Republicans are painting Obama as a feckless economic illiterate, appeaser of his party's interest groups, and statist with distrust if not hatred toward the private sector.  Democrats are portraying Romney as a rich guy insensitive to ordinary voters' lives and problems, captive of right-wingers in his own party, and a threat to programs benefiting women, senior citizens, college students, public-employee unions, Latinos, African Americans, and others whose votes Obama seeks.

Early polling data indicate that partisans on both sides tend to believe the caricatures drawn of the other party's candidate, whereas independent voters, now more numerous in the electorate than either Democrats or Republicans, are still looking for information.

Among their questions:  Who are these guys? What motivates them?  What do they believe in their guts?  Day-to-day media coverage isn't much help with this and, once the campaign begins in earnest, the media will focus wholly on campaign debates, day-to-day exchanges and stumbles by the candidates, and big economic or foreign-policy events.

A good source for those still asking questions is the recent Obama biography, The Story, by David Maraniss (Simon & Schuster).  It has supplemented earlier Obama biographies and Obama's own acounts of himself. It fills in the picture of a man who has served almost a full presidential term but whose identity is still unclear to many voters.

The Maraniss book gives us fuller objective detail than we have had before but, being the first of two volumes, it ends at the point where Obama leaves Chicago, where he had been a community organizer, en route to Harvard Law School.  Another recent book, American Tapestry, by Rachel Swarns (Amistad/HarperCollins), traces Michelle Obama's ancestry and tells us that, as many African American families who rose up from slavery, she has white kinfolk scattered across several Southern states.  The latter book, it seems to me, is important because Michelle Obama and her Robinson family played such a large part in helping Obama define himself and find an adoptive place in American black culture.

I was drawn to Obama's early background in the early stages of his 2008 candidacy:  A boy abandoned by his African father, often separated from his Mercer Island-raised mother, born in Hawaii, educated in childhood in his mother's Indonesian husband's culture, put in the care of Anglo maternal grandparents who saw that he got a private-school education in multi-cultural Hawaii, and struggling to define himself and his place in the world well into his undergraduate years at Occidental and Columbia.

Obama became a loner Moviegoer, as the main character in the 1951 Walker Percy novel, detached and observing.  Not surprisignly, he aspired in those years to become a writer.  At his Hawaii prep school he was known as a doper, slacker, and reserve player on the state-champion basketball team.  Neither his professors nor fellow students remembered him at Columbia. It was not until his community-organizing and Harvard Law School days that he moved from detachment to active, ambitious involvement.  Grandiose dreams, previously suppressed, began to be played out.

As befit his cosmopolitan, multi-cultural upbringing, Obama vowed in his 2008 campaign to end prior partisan and ideological divisions and to govern as a unifier.  Once elected, however, he governed in a highly partisan fashion.  This surprised me.  His stimulus and health proposals were framed and enacted on a one-party basis — even where bipartisan support might have been forthcoming.

The Moviegoer loner persona returned.  Obama loved to make public statements and speeches. But he clearly disliked having to deal with not only Republican but Democratic legislators.  They seldom saw him. His White House staff had the highest turnover rate of any modern presidency.  His and his staff's partisan statements and postures were derivative of the Chicago machine culture.  His Cabinet appointees were of uneven competence and appeared to have been chosen with offhand carelessness — in that regard, recalling President Bill Clinton's comparable choices.  If the president was star of the movie, what difference did it make who filled the supporting roles?

Having spent many years in the game, none of this should have surprised me.  But it did.   As millions of others, I had seen what I wanted to see in the 2008 Obama.   The man was more complex than foreseen.  It should not have been surprising, in fact, that the unchanging quality in Obama would be his loner apartness, the persona formed from early childhood into his adulthood.

I do not find Obama's character to be disqualifying for the presidency.  Had he entered office, in 2009, in the midst of an economic expansion, many of his unseen traits might not have surfaced or mattered.   His Moviegoer tendency, in fact, is a plus in foreign affairs, where war-peace and related decisions should be taken judiciously and after careful weighing of their implications.  Obama was not and will not be a Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush, intimidated by advisers urging him to make wrongheaded major international decisions.

Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter had character traits far more concerning than Obama's.  They, too, were loners but whose conduct of governance led them into serious blind alleys. There are, after all, good and bad loners just as there are good and bad extrovert backslappers.

Thus far there have been no comparably thorough biographies of Mitt Romney who, in any case, seems far less complex than Obama.

Romney, as I see him, is a through-and-through 1950s guy. Whereas Obama never knew his father, except in imagination, Romney's hero from childhood onward was his father, George Romney, a high-school-educated, regular guy who rose through hard work to be president of an automobile company and, then, a successful moderate/populist governor of Michigan. But for a candid slip of lip (saying he was "brainwashed" by military briefers during a trip to Vietnam) he rather than Nixon might have won the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

Romney's mother, too, was a stay-at-home, raise-the-klds type in contrast to Obama's often absent, cultural-anthropologist, save-the-world, voyager mother. (It strikes me that Obama found his own traditional family, finally, when he married into wife Michelle's mom-dad-and-the-kids Chicago family, which they have tried to replicate with their own famiy in the White House). George Romney left no inheritance for his children but expected them to make it on their own, as he had. Mitt dug in and did it. He got rich and he and his wife presided over their own Brady Bunch family. Mitt got involved in his church, in good works, and in public service. You sense that, if he won the presidency, his first thoughts would be of his father.

Romney is the opposite of a Movegoer.  He strikes me as being a conventional, moderate Republican manager in his Dad's image — a bit embarrassed to be consorting with the Santorum true believers in the Republican Party and, for that matter, campaigning against an Obamacare program for which he provided the initial model in Massachusetts, where he governed in the same moderate/populist way George Romney had in Michigan.

Romney's upbringing and background have made him a manager, entrepreneur, and empiricist, but not a man of imagination.   My principal concern about him is that his life to date has not prepared him to deal with large foreign-policy questions.  He is not a conceptualizer but a manager.  His foreign policy-national security campaign statements to date seem almost carbon copies of John McCain's comparable 2008 statements: always a step harsher and more belligerent than those of Obama. I often wonder if Romney truly senses the implications of his statements relating to Iran, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries where ambiguity rather than sword-rattling is more appropriate.

With Romney, we are seeing what we would get.With Obama, we did not foresee what we would get and, even now, there is a sense that there is much of him still withheld.  Romney is a conventional, predictable manager of the moderate Right.  Obama is a less revealed, more intellectual aspirer of the moderate Left.

They come from greatly different childhoods and intellectual constructs. But neither is a worrisome threat to our well-being, as the partisan caricatures would have us believe, come January 2013.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.