Turning to the general election, the likely Republican nominee paints a picture of the president as a shallow, power-hungry narcissist.
Mitt Romney gave a totally new speech in Wisconsin on Friday, unveiling a general-election-focused message of can-do economic pragmatism and charging that President Obama hasn't done enough to "lead the recovery."
Obama, he claimed, envisions a "government-centered society" that stifles innovation and puts a damper on Americans' economic potential. "That's not who we are," he said.
That Romney is ignoring his dead-ender rivals in the still-technically-ongoing GOP primary, and focusing on November instead, should come as no surprise. In the judgment of Republican elites -- if not necessarily Republican voters -- the primary is over, and it's time to start focusing on the ultimate target.
But Romney's speech Friday also included an interesting new depiction of the president. In multiple passages in the speech, he described Obama as a preening, power-hungry narcissist and unqualified empty suit -- a personality-cult leader surrounded by yes-men.
"President Obama ... actually thinks he's doing a great job. An historically great job," Romney said. "According to the president, only Lincoln, FDR and Lyndon Johnson have accomplished more." (Obama said, in an interview last year, that he would "put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president" besides those three.) The president, Romney implied, is so fixated on his stature as a historical figure that he "doesn't grasp" what's really going on.
"This is a president who was elected not on the strength of a compelling record but a compelling personality and story," Romney said. "There was much about the campaign of Barack Obama that appealed to many Americans. And though the reality has failed the hope and change he promised, he remains surrounded by true believers who attack anyone who challenges their power. And, as we see each day, they will fight even more fiercely to hold on to that power."
Romney seemed to be echoing one of John McCain's most widely noted, and controversial, ads from the 2008 campaign, "Celebrity," which painted Obama as someone who was merely famous for being famous, like Paris Hilton, and lacked substance to back it up. There's also the assertion that Obama is in it for his own personal ambition and lust for power, rather than any desire to help others.
"Barack Obama once said that his work as a community organizer motivated him to help 'communities that had been ravaged by plant closings,'" Romney added. "His desire to help others could not be more admirable, but it's clear that he saw free enterprise as the villain and not the solution. ... I'm not naive enough to believe that free enterprise is the solution to all of our problems -- nor am I naive enough to doubt that it is one of the greatest forces of good this world has ever known."
Calling Obama "naive" and depicting him as nothing more than a giver of good speeches was also a favorite play of Hillary Clinton's in the 2008 Democratic primary. Unable to compete with her rival's rhetorical firepower, she urged voters to question their instinctive infatuation with him and argued that actions ought to be more compelling than lofty orations.
Like Clinton, Romney faces a tricky task in competing with Obama when it comes to personality and rhetoric. As Obama showed in a fiery speech to a crowd of thousands in Vermont earlier Friday, he still has an unmatched ability to rouse a crowd, while Romney's stiffness and lack of warmth have been widely noted. Romney's Friday speech was better and more ably delivered than most of his stumping thus far, but he'll never have Obama's looseness or his ability to build a rhetorical crescendo to fever pitch.
Calling attention to Obama's "personality," however, is a gamble for Romney. Will it really make voters question the president's seriousness, or will it just call attention to Romney's deficiencies? Similarly, by calling attention to Obama's short resume prior to being elected, will Romney, a one-term governor, remind people of his own relative paucity of government experience? That probably depends whether voters view his years in the private sector as qualifying, even superior experience, or merely irrelevant.
At this point, voters tend to like Obama more than they like Romney. It may be impossible for Romney to turn that around and make them view him in a positive light. But he can hope to turn voters against Obama -- by convincing them that the president is a power-hungry egotist who doesn't have their best interests at heart.