A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s blog.
Andrew Sullivan points out the strange numbers mismatch:
When Obama was kicking Romney’s ass in July and August, he was in negative approval territory (red). Since September, he has made a comeback in approval even as he has lost the edge to Romney nationwide. I don’t know quite what to make of this. It used to be the case that Obama’s edge was in personal favorability, not approval ratings. But Romney’s net favorables are now the same as or slightly ahead of Obama’s.
Are Americans saying they appreciate the clean-up that Obama has achieved but now want a new start? Or is this a sign of a recovery in the economy which will eventually show up in the result on election day? Or do voters approve of Obama’s record more now but like Romney as a person and so it all evens out into a dead heat?
I think there’s some significance to the fact that Romney has been the stronger and more energetic — if ruder — candidate during the debates. Polling sometimes reflects rational responses to stated policy positions, but it can also reflect the electorate’s feelings about candidates’ personalities (which are admittedly much harder to tie to objective criteria).
If you think back to July and August, both Obama and Romney were making lots of public appearances and giving speeches back then, but they didn’t come together in the combative format of a debate until earlier this month. And it was jarring for a broad range of people, I’d say, to see the way Obama was tossed around during that conversation.
The presidency isn’t simply about technocratically crafting and implementing policy. Negotiating with adversaries and bonding with allies — both domestically and abroad — is still a big part of the job. And I think for a wide swathe of voters, Obama showed some serious vulnerability on this “interpersonal” front during the first debate, suggesting that it might be a problem that has plagued him over the past few years. Lyndon Johnson, by contrast, wasn’t nearly the scholar or policy expert that Obama is, but he had a way with people. He knew how to roll up his sleeves and duke it out. As did Reagan and Clinton — and even GWB to some extent. American voters want to be charmed by their president, and Obama, for all his brilliance, often displays a remoteness that looks and feels like weakness.
Whether this is a reasonable grounds for deciding how to vote is up for debate. I do think it’s worth thinking about how Obama might perform in a combative discussion with Putin or Hugo Chavez given his performance against the comparatively mild Mitt Romney. I also think it’s relevant that Obama has, rather objectively, not been very effective at winning the negotiations that have arisen over the last few years in the context of legislative battles, foreign affairs, and so on. He has, like all great professors, been great at declaring his agenda, declaring his values, and showing himself to be open to compromise and conversation, but some people are — perhaps rightly — turned off by how much he struggles to control the conversation and get his way when placed into a more combative rhetorical environment.
I would guess therefore that there are center-left and middle-of-the-road undecideds out there who appreciate Obama’s agenda and much of what he’s tried to do, but harbor genuine concerns about his ability to get tough with tough people. Given that those types abound in the Republican Congress and on the world stage, Obama’s interpersonal ability might be a more reasonable electoral question than you’d initially think.