If President Obama is trying to widen his advantage with women voters or improve his likability numbers, Thursday may not have been the best day he's had recently. Even in a campaign year noted for its less-than-uplifting tone, this was a low point. The president was caught at his earthiest when he casually referred to Mitt Romney as a "bullshitter" in an interview while keeping up his attack on his Republican challenger as a man stricken with "Romnesia," a disease that prevents him from remembering his past positions.
The Romney campaign publicly welcomed the president's more aggressive and combative tone, hoping it might help them further narrow the gender gap and prevent Obama from crossing the 50 percent threshold in job approval. Though still struggling to overtake Obama in most of the key battleground states, the Romney braintrust insists that the front page of Thursday's Des Moines Register captured a new campaign dynamic. The page carried twin campaign stories with dueling headlines: "Obama Sharpens Criticism" vs. "Romney Expresses Optimism."
"The contrast between President Obama's desperation and Governor Romney's optimism couldn't be more clear," declared Romney aide Amanda Henneberg, making sure the newspaper stories got wide distribution.
Less broadly distributed but more jarring was the snippet from the president's interview with historian Douglas Brinkley for Rolling Stone. After a light exchange with the 6-year-old daughter of a Rolling Stone editor, Obama was described as grinning and responded to the child's encouragement, saying, "You know, kids have good instincts.... They look at the other guy and say, 'Well, that's a bullshitter, I can tell.' "
Brinkley told CBS News that he sees the word as basically a continuation of the Democratic attack on Romney. "It's another part of Romnesia, I suppose. The working man's Romnesia is BS-er." White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer urged reporters not to be "distracted by the word" but to focus instead on the importance of choosing a president they can trust.
That is the question at the heart of the "Romnesia" assault. But Boston is hoping many voters -- particularly women -- will pause at least for a while on the president's choice of words. Aide Kevin Madden told CNN that it shows the president is "rattled and on the defensive. He's running on empty and has nothing left but attacks and insults."
A senior Romney strategist who asked not to be named said they expected more attacks from Obama. "The Chicago guys know that he is below 50 on both ballot and approval," he told National Journal. "It is not that Obama likes to be a hatchet man. They think they have got to bring Romney back down by bringing his negatives back up.... But it is dangerous to have the president himself doing it."
Madden called it "unfortunate he has to close the final days of the campaign this way." But that is how most campaigns end, with one candidate ratcheting up the attack rhetoric and the other one trying to stay above the fray. In past campaigns, the one mounting the assault is often the one who either feels the election is slipping away or who finds it impossible to accept that the challenger is making the race so close. Certainly, that was the case in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush let his frustration dictate some of his rhetoric in the final days of his battle against challengers Bill Clinton and Al Gore. "My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos," he complained. In the same set of speeches, Bush dismissed Gore as "the Ozone man." Bush aides immediately regretted the president's comments, believing they eroded his stature lead over Clinton by appearing so "unpresidential."
Four years ago, Republican nominee John McCain suffered a similar diminution of gravitas when he spent so much of his final push parading around an unlicensed "Joe the Plumber" while vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists."
In part, this year's tougher rhetoric sheds light on what was never a very well-kept secret -- Obama doesn't like Romney. "We could go through [history] and find good and bad relationships," said historian Brinkley. "This is not one that has a whole lot of mutual respect." Obama all but confirmed that in an interview with NBC anchor Brian Williams. He said he suspects his personal feelings are similar to that of most presidential candidates in the heat of a campaign. "I don't think anybody would say that while you were in the middle of a campaign that you felt deep affection for the other guy, because, you know, look, you're fighting for competing visions," he said.
It also is true that the antipathy is nothing new in the 2012 campaign and has been in no way restricted to the president. Just on Thursday, vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan called the president "slick" and dismissed his second-term agenda as a "comic book." Romney himself has lashed out both at his Democratic opponent and at his Republican rivals in the primaries. After Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, Romney and his allies unloaded on him in Florida, leaving the former speaker reeling.
And the attacks launched against Romney in the primaries were more biting than any joke by Obama about "Romnesia." Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Romney let companies "loot people's jobs, loot their pensions, loot their ability to take care of their families." He said Romney and the companies he bought were "vultures ... sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass. They leave with that and they leave the skeleton." And Rick Santorum at one point seemed to be likening Romney to Hitler.
All this is further proof of the correctness of humorist Finley Peter Dunne when he first observed that American "politics ain't beanbag." And it is one of the reasons why the Obama campaign is unconcerned with suggestions they aren't playing nice with Romney. "If he can't stand a little humor," said campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher, "how will he stand up to China? Or stand up for the American people?"