Two family men with different stories

When it comes to talking about their personal and family lives, President Obama and Mitt Romney take starkly different approaches. Put simply, Obama is less reticent about doing so.

Barack and first lady Michelle Obama often speak on the campaign trail about the relative modesty of their backgrounds, presumably as a way of fostering empathy with voters.

ADVERTISEMENT
Obama also refers to the importance of landmark progressive achievements like the GI Bill in the lives of his maternal grandparents, who played a central role in raising him. At other times he has invoked his daughters, Malia and Sasha, to help explain everything from his changed position on same-sex marriage to his support for women’s rights.

Romney does not entirely avoid personal references. Earlier this week, he told donors a story about how, as a child, he discovered that his father, George, possessed a card entitling him to free McDonald’s food for life.

But the McDonald’s story was a rare example of the candidate overcoming his diffidence. That taciturn streak might well have deepened when past personal observations backfired — most notably his remark at a February event in Detroit that his wife, Ann, owned “a couple of Cadillacs."

Strategists from both parties expect that Romney’s willingness to talk about his family life might be on the rise by the end of this month, when the Republican National Convention takes place in Tampa, Fla.

Party conventions have often been the venue for well-received biographical expositions, perhaps the most famous being the “Man From Hope” mini-documentary that helped define then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton for the American public when it was shown at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City.

A focus upon family at conventions “always plays well,” according to Keith Appell, a Republican strategist.

“I expect we’ll see a fair amount of [Romney’s] entire family at the convention,” Appell added. “It’s one of his strengths: He has raised five boys and his wife is one of his biggest assets on the stump.”

Democratic strategist Karen Finney — also a columnist for The Hill — agreed that the Republican convention gave Romney “an opportunity to define himself.”

But she struck two notes of caution. She said that if Romney is genuinely uncomfortable talking about himself in an intimate way, it would be very risky for his campaign team to push him to do so.

Yet, at the same time, she said, “if he fails to define himself, the Obama team and the DNC have done a very effective job in defining him. In politics, if you don’t define yourself, your opponent defines you.”

Ann Romney has long been an enthusiastic backer of her husband, and has sought to dismantle the suggestion that he is stiff and awkward.

In an interview with a Baltimore radio station in April, she said, “He is not!” when confronted with this claim, and added, “I guess we better unzip him and let the real Mitt Romney out.”

Romney’s adult sons have been involved in the campaign, albeit at a relatively low level. Two of them, Josh and Craig, appended their names to otherwise somewhat formulaic fundraising emails earlier this week.

Still, the president and first lady’s habit of weaving together political issues and references to their family is much more well-established and overt.

In the space of a couple of minutes during a speech in Denver on Wednesday, the president separately cited his wife, his daughters and his late mother in the process of advocating for both his signature healthcare reforms and his commitment to women’s issues more generally.

“When I talk about women’s issues, I’m talking about the experiences that I’ve seen in my own life,” he said.

Obama added that he wanted to make sure that the first lady had “control over her healthcare choices”; that his mother might have lived longer “if she had been able to spend less time focusing on how she was going to pay her bills”; and that, when he thinks about Malia and Sasha, “I think to myself: Well, we’re not going to have an America where they have fewer opportunities than somebody’s sons.”

Speaking in Philadelphia on Thursday, Michelle Obama spoke, as she does at many campaign stops, about the struggles of her father — “a pump operator at the city water plant his entire life” —  to put her and her brother through college.

Of her husband, she told voters, “I want you to remember that Barack Obama was the son of a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills. He’s the grandson of a woman who woke up before dawn to catch a bus to her job at the bank.”

Jodi Kantor, a New York Times reporter and author of the best-selling book The Obamas, said she had no doubt that the feelings the first lady expresses on the stump are sincere.

“But I also think, in a political sense, she repeats it because both her and the president have learned that you can never really stop introducing yourself to the American people,” she added.

Kantor also pointed out that Romney’s wealth and his Mormonism have the potential to make the foregrounding of personal details more politically complicated for him.

“Obama’s whole rise is based on his personal story. He is the memoirist president,” she said. For Romney, by contrast, “we know there are parts of his life that he doesn’t discuss.”

Appell, the Republican strategist, suggested a distaste for the Obama approach might also be a factor in Romney’s considerations.

“Perhaps he has seen Obama use his family politically in what many people would see as a cynical way, and he’s resistant to that,” he speculated.

Finney asserted that, whatever the reason behind it, Romney’s reluctance to synthesize his personal life and his political positions could be problematic for him.

“The broader problem is that he doesn’t have a narrative,” she said. “I find it surprising that he has not found a way to talk about himself and his story in a way that is at least relatable.”