With Newt Gingrich officially out of the race, it’s time to start measuring how President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney will stack up against each other on the stump.
Though Obama has a reputation for being a compelling orator and Romney has taken criticism for being robotic and out of touch, the candidates stand on fairly equal ground, speechwriters say. The two candidates face similar challenges, in that they both sometimes veer into a speaking style that many Americans just can’t relate to.
And though Obama may have the likeability edge, he’s also playing defense.
The academic and the businessman
“The more authentic a speaker is, the more you realize that what you see is what you get,” says executive speechwriter Ian Griffin.
Obama and Romney have a tendency to drift away from sounding like regular guys, something George W. Bush was adept at, he says. Obama can often come off as too intellectual or academic; after all, he was a law professor. And Romney, with his talk of multiple Cadillacs and knowing NASCAR team owners, has been chastised for being the mouthpiece of the richest of the rich.
“Hardly anybody understands what a hedge fund is or private equity,” Griffin says of Romney’s background. “It’s hard for people to relate to high finance.”
Fraser Seitel, president of communications management firm Emerald Partners, says Romney’s strategy should be to accentuate his business experience, but in plain language.
“He must underscore every speech with the notion that Obama is a nice guy but mediocre president, ill-equipped in terms of either experience or creativity to extract the nation from economic malaise,” he says.
For Obama, the trick will be finding a way to avoid being pedantic without falling back into his rock-star speaking style from the 2008 campaign, Seitel says.
“That’s gone, and if he tries to rekindle it, the Republicans will pounce.” He says. What Obama needs is a “straightforward, common-sense approach.”
The personality contest
There’s no denying that Obama is a likeable guy, says Mike Long, a PR and speechwriting instructor at Georgetown University who notes outright that he’s a Republican. And likeability may be the deciding factor in the election.
Long says Romney is certainly fighting the idea that he’s out of touch, but Long says he sees in Romney “a focus and a gravitas he absolutely did not have two-and-a-half months ago.” Long says Romney has been sort of avuncular in his most recent speeches, laughing off criticism and expressing things in a way that say, “Let me share with you the benefit of my experience.”
Griffin points to former Vice President Al Gore’s transformation between leaving office and giving talks about global warming as an example of a speaker who went from wooden to human and passionate. It’s doable.
Still, Seitel warns that Romney should probably shy away from trying to take on the president in the race of who’s more fun. Romney “should present himself as who he is, serious and focused, not particularly warm or touchy-feely,” he says. “If he attempts to parrot Obama in those areas, he loses.”
Is there a rhetorical race?
Long theorizes that this election will be one of “tactics, not of rhetorical strategy.”
That’s because what both sides are likely to say is pretty predictable. Obama is going to say that you can’t trust Republicans because of their past failings, and Romney will take a page from Ronald Reagan and ask, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”
However, Seitel says the two candidates should aim to make a few other points, too. Romney should hammer jobs and futures for voters’ children, he says. Obama should look to four points: presidential decision-making experience (an asset he didn’t have in 2008), compassion for the less fortunate, flexibility and willingness to reach out to his political opponents, and respect on the world stage.