By Michael O’Brien - 01/05/11 11:00 AM EST
Facing a public that barely knows him and a Democratic Party that wants to demonize him, incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) appears to be taking strides to soften his image as he prepares to assume the House gavel on Wednesday.
The Ohio congressman has pointedly emphasized his working-class roots and close family ties of late, even as his political opponents have sought to paint him as a “good old boy” with cozy ties to lobbyists.
As Speaker in the 112th Congress, the second in line to succeed the president, Boehner’s will arguably be the most public face of the Republican Party over the next year, and help position the GOP heading into the 2012 presidential campaign.
“With Boehner, what you see is what you get. He’s proud of his background — growing up with 11 brothers and sisters in the small, working-class community of Reading, Ohio," said Kevin Smith, the incoming Speaker's communications director. "His upbringing, his work as a small-businessman and his previous service in leadership and as a committee chairman have all prepared him to be a different sort of Speaker, different from Republicans and Democrats in the past. And he’s going to continue to lead the fight for a smaller, less costly and more accountable federal government.”
He and the House Republican leadership team played up that image when they unveiled their "Pledge to America," the governing agenda during the midterm campaign. Boehner led GOP lawmakers in a press conference at a lumber store in suburban Virginia, where they shed the usual coat and tie for more folksy garb, and Boehner wore a blue button-down with slacks instead of his usual sharp suit.
President Obama led an effort to demonize Boehner during the 2010 campaign as the leader of corporate-friendly Republicans. The president mentioned Boehner by name eight times in a November speech in Ohio — Boehner’s turf — accusing him of offering "no new ideas."
The Democratic National Committee spotlighted the Republican in an ad called "Boehner Land," which accused him of being "a Speaker for big-time lobbyists."
Boehner, an avid golfer also known for his penchant for red wine, had to fend off questions about his tan complexion. Obama joked at the 2009 White House Correspondents' Association dinner that Boehner was a "person of color," and the joke stuck.
"I've never been in a tanning salon in my life; I've never used a tanning product in my life," Boehner said in a recent interview with "60 Minutes.”
The liberal group EMILY's List has also gotten in on the action, launching a "Boehner's Boys" campaign that aims to cast the incoming Speaker and other GOP leaders as a clubby group in the mold of TV's "Mad Men."
"I think it was a ridiculous overreach to try, in the space of nine weeks, to demonize someone who, the more people get to know him, the more they like him," said Kevin Madden, a former spokesman for Boehner.
A post-election Gallup poll suggested Democrats’ efforts hadn't substantially dented Boehner's reputation. The poll found that 34 percent had a favorable opinion, while 26 percent had a negative opinion. Forty percent had no opinion at all — which could be a boon.
Republicans are well-aware how a Speaker’s approval ratings can affect a party. The GOP expended great energy trying to tie Democratic candidates and incumbents to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who was cast by the GOP as an elite San Francisco liberal. And it seemed, at least in part, to work.
If the incoming Speaker is trying to project a humble image, it applies even to the menu items for his swearing-in celebration. Boehner is importing Cincinnati favorites, including Skyline coneys, Montgomery Inn ribs and ice cream from the local spot Graeter's, according to a local CBS affiliate's report promoted by Boehner's office.
Boehner’s first chance to connect with the public will come on Thursday, when he sits down with NBC's Brian Williams for his first interview as Speaker. Observers will undoubtedly watch for his now-infamous shows of emotion: during his last interview, he shed tears repeatedly, as he did on election night.