Washington: Points of unity: Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both like process-driven decisions, iPads, ABC’s “Modern Family” and chicken.
Grilled chicken, not fried, in keeping with the shared body-mindedness of the combatants (Obama does treadmill and hoops, Romney elliptical and bike). Spicy, too, as Romney (who often peels the skin off) has demonstrated with his endorsement of the jalapeno chicken sandwich at Carl’s Jr. and Obama has praised the grilled chicken tacos made by the White House chef.
Striking similarities: Barack Obama (Jason Reed/Reuters), left and Mitt Romney (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/AFP).
While a few shared tastes do not erase the general distaste of this campaign, the candidates do have a surprising amount in common. Granted, little of it concerns how to fix the economy, shrink the deficit or deal with Russia.
But interviews with people from the candidates’ overlapping realms—at Harvard, in the health care policy arena and in politics—yield similar observations about their personalities and their leadership and decision-making styles. Both are analytical introverts operating in a province of extroverts.
“Neither is the epitome of the backslapping pol,” said Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat and former governor of Pennsylvania who knew Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. “Both of them are almost shy, which is amazing in this business,” said Rendell, who is a supporter of Obama.
Neither candidate has much stomach for small talk or idle chatter. They have both been called difficult to know and even aloof at times. But if they were to convene for, say, a chicken barbecue—not likely—they could explore some shared affinities and experiences. After-dinner, for instance, maybe over plates of pie (enjoyed by both), Obama and Romney could play the “did you know” game from their Harvard days or name-check the policy experts they consulted during their respective health care overhauls.
They could compare counties visited in Iowa, activists fawned over in New Hampshire and the irritations of dealing with blowhard colleagues in state government. They could exchange trivia about Star Trek (liked by both) or complaints about the press (disliked).
Supporters admire them as confident and disciplined leaders. They are described as cautious and deliberate decision-makers who distrust gut instinct and the emotional tenor of the modern political debate. In previous jobs, as governor of Massachusetts (Romney) and senator from Illinois (Obama), both were viewed as short-timers passing through to headier stations. Each served one term in those posts, or less (in Obama’s case), and spent much of it plotting or actively running for the next.
Romney “struck me as someone who was more interested in having the job as governor than doing the job”, said governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, a Democrat and close friend of Obama who succeeded Romney. Patrick said his predecessor, whom he describes as “a gentleman”, seemed to be someone who said to himself, “OK, I won that, now I'm going to move onto something else." Former Senate colleagues of Obama said the same about the future president.
There is a restless quality to both Obama and Romney, people close to them say. They spent formative periods living abroad and attended several colleges before carving out political careers as above-it-all outsiders. They had their convictions questioned by ideological purists in their parties (and their religions, too, by others).
Each suffered tough losses in early campaigns that might have, in retrospect, been ill-advised: Romney lost a 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts against the incumbent, Edward M. Kennedy; Obama was crushed in a 2000 Democratic congressional primary in Illinois by the incumbent, Bobby L. Rush.
While each was the product of doting and strong mothers, the candidates forged their identities in part through the spectres of their fathers—or the absence of one, in the case of Obama.
“Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” Obama wrote in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. He has repeated the line often, sometimes adding that both might be true in his case.
Clearly a “father’s expectations” guy, Romney idolized his father, George, an auto executive turned politician. He followed his father everywhere, worked tirelessly on his campaigns and placed his photo on his desk in his freshman dorm room.
“Obama had to create his own identity, while Romney’s was programmed early,” said Michael Maccoby, a Washington psychoanalyst who has written on the leadership styles of business and government executives.
The candidates attended two of the most elite preparatory schools in the country—Punahou in Hawaii for Obama, Cranbrook in Michigan for Romney (George Romney spoke at Mitt’s graduation). They began college in California (Stanford for Romney, Occidental for Obama) before transferring and receiving their undergraduate diplomas elsewhere (Columbia for Obama, Brigham Young for Romney after 30 months on a Mormon mission in France). They received degrees from Harvard Law School, with Romney earning a second one from Harvard Business School.
“Romney clearly favoured the business school side of his study,” said Detlev F. Vagts, a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School who taught Romney.
The future governor absorbed the business school model of acquiring data, analyzing it, soliciting advice and encouraging vigorous debate before reaching a decision. Business school prepared students for making money in the corporate world. Romney had no interest in practising law.
Obama, meanwhile, dived deep into the ramifications of law in society. He volleyed big ideas as editor of The Harvard Law Review, protested for a more diverse faculty at the school and spoke disparagingly of those he viewed as more concerned with making money than improving the world.
Obama was pegged early on by peers as someone who might be “the first black president”, while Romney was identified as a potential “first Mormon president”.
“They were incredibly impressive, engaged and curious,” said Jonathan Gruber, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who briefed both men during their respective campaigns for new health care legislation.
By any measure, Obama and Romney are both devoted family men who credit their wives as the biggest and best influences on them. Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, both far more popular than Barack and Mitt are, elicit softer and noticeably more relaxed sides of their husbands. They also serve as the light yins to their husbands’ intense yangs.
It is possible that the two women would bond at the hypothetical barbecue. As for Romney and Obama, they are described as gracious, polite and accommodating in social settings— politicians, in other words. They would exchange firm handshakes with eye contact before parting.
And if things went really well, maybe they would flash Vulcan salutes. Romney, after all, calls himself a big Star Trek fan but stops short of identifying as a Trekkie. Not so for Obama, the First Trekkie indeed, who once admitted to a youthful crush on Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played Lieutenant Uhura.
And then Obama and Romney would go back to their separate orbits and resume treating each other like Klingons.
©2012/The New York Times