WASHINGTON >> President Barack Obama loves basketball, as everyone is reminded in March — especially in an election year in which he has been jumping through you-know-whats to assert as much.
In addition to doing his annual NCAA bracket thing on ESPN last week (picking the swing-statey University of North Carolina to win it all), Obama boasted in a podcast that he knew about the Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin before everyone else did, referred colloquially to the point guard’s “PT” (playing time) and chomped on a widely photographed hot dog at the Western Kentucky-Mississippi Valley State game in Dayton, Ohio. All the while, he looked like any other everyfan, albeit one with a large security detail in tow and at one point the prime minister of Britain at his side.
It is the latest iteration of the Obama-Just-Folks offensive, and one that coincides — not by accident — with some particularly clumsy efforts by the Republican front-runner, Mitt Romney, to shed the stereotypical airs of a super rich guy. Obama’s image-makers see sports as an opportunity to exploit what they regard as the president’s advantage over the former Massachusetts governor in the quadrennial battle over which candidate can seem more “ordinary” than the other (rich) guy running. Sports also provide a ready-made connection to the male voters among whom Republican nominees typically win majorities.
For his part, Romney also professes to love sports (or “sport” as he put it), mentioning that he has friends who own NASCAR and NFL teams and demurring (“I’m not plugged in well enough”) when asked for his own NCAA picks. “They asked Mitt if he was filling out his brackets,” David Axelrod, one of Obama’s top advisers, tweeted, “and he said, ‘no I have my accountants to do that.”
Romney’s supporters have in turn mocked Obama as professorial and elitist, pointing out the president’s own ham-handed attempts to fashion himself an average slob (see “summit, beer”) and someone who should be doing more important things than watching so much basketball. And they have generally noted the president’s regular dude routine with a group eye-roll.
“Yeah, it’s all so natural and organic,” said the Republican media adviser Mike Murphy. “The president is making a big move, switching from Evian water to Dasani.”
While office seekers always strain to be the proverbial “candidate you’d rather have a beer with” — and such contests will never favor Romney, a teetotaler Mormon — the president has been laying it on as thick as the Guinness he quaffed at a Washington bar on St. Patrick’s day.
In recent weeks, he has indulged in public basketball-watching, barbecue-eating and blues-singing (with Buddy Guy and B.B. King at the White House) that comports with a re-election message geared to working-class voters.
For good measure, Regular Joe Biden, the muscle-car loving vice president, has been sent to working-class venues in the Rust Belt while the first lady, Michelle Obama, went on “Late Show with David Letterman” on Monday and reminded everyone she went shopping at Target last year (Letterman helpfully flashed a photo of the outing.)
It goes without saying that Target is not the kind of store one might envision, say, Ann Romney pulling up to in one of the Cadillacs that her husband says she drives. Or that the Obamas have been playing up their folksiness at a time when Romney has proven rather butterfingered with his common touch. And no, this is not a coincidence, Obama’s aides said, though they are reluctant to say so publicly for fear of suggesting that the first couple’s penchant for basketball or Target is somehow less than authentic.
“I don’t think anyone will be elected president by filling out an NCAA bracket,” Axelrod said in an interview. “But I do think that that accessibility to a person is important. People want to support people they can relate to and are comfortable with.”
Romney’s advisers say that Obama is trying to demonstrate his barstool bona fides to obscure his weaknesses in handling the economy, and that the Republican candidate’s misfires won’t amount to a hill of cheesy grits in the greater scheme of things.
Romney “is not running to be buddy in chief,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime media adviser to Romney. “He is focused on big things. All of these episodes are small things.”
Even so, Obama’s team has proven effective in exploiting each gaffe — and herein, the boilerplate reminder about how it’s much easier to do this in the age of YouTube, Facebook, etc. Axelrod’s Twitter account has been a preferred weapon. He is especially fond of playing on Romney’s curious statement that “the trees are the right height” in Michigan (“So Mitt wins Guam, where the Sea Hibiscus are just the right height!” Axelrod wrote.)
Axelrod also sent out a photo of Obama and his dog, Bo, in the back of a limousine with the caption, “How loving owners transport their dogs,” an obvious reference to how Romney long ago transported his Irish setter, Seamus, in a cage on the roof of the family car during a long trip. This Axelrod Twitter post came a few days after the president’s re-election campaign created a “Pet Lovers for Obama” group on Facebook.
Romney’s loyalists give Obama’s campaign grudging credit for seizing on Romney’s vulnerabilities and mishaps. “But how hard is it to cash a lottery ticket?” said Murphy, a former adviser to Romney who is not involved in this campaign. He added that Obama had benefited from a complicit news media that loves to point out Romney’s perceived screw-ups. This in turn makes the Romney campaign — and candidate — overly self-conscious, prompting more gaffes.
“I think Governor Romney knows that he’s now trying to feed a dog that’s trained to bite him,” Murphy said.
The Romney campaign, though, appears determined to bite back. The former governor mocked “Professor Obama” during his victory speech Tuesday after winning the Illinois primary. He has also charged that the president’s views were nurtured in “the Harvard Faculty Lounge” though Romney has two degrees from Harvard to Obama’s one.
For what it’s worth, the Crimson lost to Vanderbilt in the first round of the NCAA tournament last weekend. Obama picked Vanderbilt to win but said he was rooting for Harvard. And he says the other guy has no convictions.