How it must gall President Barack Obama's re-election team to try to talk down Mitt Romney by talking up his talent. "He is a great salesman," top Obama strategist David Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday." "That is what he did as a professional; he is very good at it."
Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs went further, calling Romney's first debate "a masterful, masterful performance," among other things. If Romney ever needs a critic's blurb to put on his promotional materials, he could do worse than "Robert Gibbs: Magical and theatrical ..." Gibbs makes it sound like in the first debate Romney was a combination of Laurence Olivier in "Hamlet" and Fred Astaire in "Top Hat."
There is a delicious irony in Obama's aides complaining of someone else's superior salesmanship. Do they have no self-awareness? They might want to reacquaint themselves with how Barack Obama became president. It wasn't his long record of legislative achievement. It wasn't his executive experience. It wasn't his fine-grained agenda. It was a winning smile, a great narrative and a slogan that fit the temper of the moment: "Hope and change." Not to mention a determined effort to obscure and sand away the rough edges of his leftism. It was, in short, a great sales job.
For the Obama campaign to turn around and complain that Mitt Romney is just too persuasive is like the late, great TV pitchman Billy Mays warning that the other guy is better at peddling OxiClean. There is a Willy Loman-esque autumnal feel to the Obama team's plaint, which has been picked up by the president himself. When Loman's touch deserted him, he was left a wreck "the end of a man when his dream world is shattered," in the words of a critic.
With two debates to redeem himself and his favorability ratings holding up nicely, the president is hardly there, but the backhanded testaments to Romney's superlative performance skills speak to his challenge. It's hard to imagine the greatest political salesman of his generation, Bill Clinton, ever having to dismiss George H. W. Bush or Bob Dole as simply too silver-tongued for him. Or the Obama of 2008 having to explain how his own substantive merits were being obscured by the rhetorical prowess of John McCain.
When the Obama team hails Romney's salesmanship it is, of course, making a number of not-too-veiled criticisms: He is an empty vessel, fraudulently misportraying his own program and shamelessly repositioning himself to the center. But Romney is, far and away, a more substantive, accomplished man than Barack Obama when he was running for president a highly successful businessman who turned around the Salt Lake Olympics and served as governor of Massachusetts. He is running on a center-right program of reform that does not, no matter how much liberals wish to believe it, depend on a tissue of lies. Finally, Romney is making some feints to the rhetorical center, but this is hardly unprecedented in the latter stages of a presidential campaign. Without changing his policies, he's choosing to accent certain notes over others.
In praising Romney's salesmanship, the Obama campaign is stepping on its own message about him. It had made great progress over a matter of months in attacking the Republican as a monster from the right wing via the world of private equity. Now he's the beguiling talker who is overly flexible and pragmatic. What exactly does the Obama campaign think swing voters will find so threatening about this new depiction?
Slickness can become a character issue. Just ask Bill Clinton. But Romney's proficiency as an explainer is joined to a sincere earnestness and good cheer. People will be more inclined to consider him an Eagle Scout than an Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis' huckster to whom David Axelrod compared him in the aftermath of the first debate. If the Obama team is correct about how good he is at making a sale, they should be very worried.