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The Outsiders

What Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have in common.

See if you can tell which of the following passages are from The Obamas by Jodi Kantor and which are from The Real Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman. The answers are at the end of this column. No peeking!

a) “‘[Predecessor] had a genuine curiosity about the people in the building and what made them tick, and how to develop functional relationships that proved to be productive in the clinch,’ said [politician]. ‘[Romney/Obama] was considerably more reserved.’”
b) “‘The one thing I don’t like is that I have to scratch the backs of these legislators,’ he told them.”
c) “The [Romneys/Obamas] led a social life that was circumscribed in the extreme. They ate at home ... most nights.”
d) “[Romney/Obama] wasn’t one to socialize much with [those who worked for him]. His ruthlessness with his personal time was meant to show how to balance work and family.”
e) “‘He’s very engaging and charming in a small group of friends he’s comfortable with,’ said one former aide. ‘When he’s with people he doesn’t know, he gets more formal. And if it’s a political thing where he doesn’t know anybody, he has a mask.’”
f) “He is not fed by, and does not crave, casual social interaction, often displaying little desire to know who people are and what makes them tick.”
g) “He hated to waste time, and ... schmoozing—like making emotional speeches—was another part of politics he seemed to have decided was mostly fake.”

Did you ever think you’d have such difficulty telling President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney apart? So different in so many obvious ways, Romney and Obama share a pronounced distaste for the backslapping, arm-twisting, size-’em-up-and-wear-’em-down manipulations typically required to achieve anything in politics. They are not fascinated by what motivates other people. They both like to win—a lot—but they don’t relish the sweet-talking, the bullying, and the horse-trading that is often necessary to achieve victory. Neither of them is an especially gregarious person.

In public, Obama and Romney express their aloofness quite differently. Obama radiates emotional detachment and can be maddeningly slow to display anger. Romney affects a brittle, sometimes manic, and always artificial conviviality. Both behaviors are distancing. For Obama and Romney, jawboning a recalcitrant legislator or working a rope line is a means to an end, not a pleasure in itself. Neither has the intrinsic passion for blather evident (many would say to a fault) in Vice President Joe Biden, whom Politico has dubbed America’s “schmoozer in chief.” Biden gets the job because Obama doesn’t want it.

Can you imagine Bill Clinton letting Al Gore schmooze for him? It would be like Clinton asking Gore to eat and breathe for him. And anyway, Gore wasn’t much of a schmoozer. George W. Bush was; though his crude expressions of familiarity—“Yo, Blair!” and an endless stream of idiotic nicknames—were as likely to annoy as to endear. (I’ve often wondered how we avoided restarting the cold war after Bush reportedly nicknamed Vladimir Putin “Pootie-Poot.”)

The aloofness of Obama and Romney probably reflects, to some degree, technological change. With so much more video of a candidate’s life unspooling on cable news and the Internet, politics now rewards cooler emotional temperatures even more than it did when John F. Kennedy became president. Stepped-up partisanship, too, likely plays some role. As the possibility diminishes that Democrats and Republicans will ever agree on anything, there’s less to achieve through warm displays of affability. Even within the parties, the demands of modern fund-raising could never accommodate a contemporary equivalent to House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s “Board of Education,” where intramural conflicts got resolved every afternoon over bourbon and poker.

But Romney’s and Obama’s detachment also reflects their upbringing. In his memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama recalls worrying that “I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.” Romney is less forthcoming about his struggle to fit in, but, at age 14, we learn in The Real Romney, he and his family appeared in a Detroit Free Press feature depicting Mormonism as “one of the smallest and least understood faiths” in southeast Michigan. Romney’s detachment, Kranish and Helman believe, “is a function partly of his faith, which has its own tight social community that most outsiders don’t see.”

The extreme right has tried to undermine Obama by underscoring and exaggerating his outsider-ness, most famously by questioning the validity of his Hawaii birth certificate. He’s a foreigner, they hint, and a Muslim. He’s not like you and me. It pegs the president as the Other without mentioning one thing he indisputably is, which is black. Newt Gingrich’s characterization of Obama as the “food-stamp president” and someone whose worldview is “Kenyan, anti-colonial” carries more than a whiff of this. More subtly, Romney says Obama “takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe” while “we look to the cities and towns across America.” The attack isn’t racial, but, in equating Obama’s liberalism with European-style social democracy, Romney is saying Obama doesn’t belong.

Ironically, though, it is Obama who strikes me as the more comfortably assimilated of the two candidates. One reason Romney presumably delayed releasing his tax returns for so long was that he worried his generous (and wholly laudatory) tithing to the Mormon Church would alienate voters. That worry is not misplaced. Overt prejudice against the Mormon faith is more common and deemed more acceptable across a broad swath of the population than overt prejudice against African Americans. Questioning Obama’s bona fides within the mainstream culture therefore strikes me as a terrible strategy for Romney. In addition to being xenophobic and untrue—there’s nothing “un-American” about our president—it risks inviting others to question his own mainstream bona fides. For Romney, staying away from such rhetoric would be both the wise and decent thing to do.

Answers: a) The Real Romney; b) The Obamas; c) The Obamas; d) The Real Romney; e) The Real Romney; f) The Real Romney; g) The Obamas

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the February 16, 2012 issue of the magazine.