TAMPA, Fla. — Republicans cast President Barack Obama as an executive who takes his cues from Europe, poses a threat to the traditional family and is unfamiliar with American staples like garage sales and lemonade stands.
In speeches and commentary this week at the Republican convention, the GOP has sought to define the Democrat for the electorate, painting a portrait of Obama — the son of a Kansas-born mother and Kenyan father — as something other than the typical American.
Next week in Charlotte, N.C., Democrats will color in their picture of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, filling out what they’ve sketched in both the 2008 presidential campaign and the current race.
In their words and ads, Democrats say Romney is an elitist out of touch with the problems facing the middle class, seeking to create an image of an aristocrat.
“It’s a campaign of who is the otherest other,” said Robin Lakoff, a retired linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has observed the campaigns use of a broad brush for the electorate.
Obama does offer an unusual biography — formative years spent in Indonesia, product of Ivy League schools, best-selling author and first African-American president. Debunked claims that he was born in Kenya and was a Muslim exploded out of the 2008 campaign and have barely subsided although the White House released the Hawaiian-born Obama’s long-form birth certificate.
Romney presents his own unique resume — Mormon, son of the former Michigan governor and a man who ran for president, missionary in France, head of the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City in 2002, Republican governor in the Democratic-leaning state of Massachusetts and multimillionaire.
Neither man fits the bill of the average, working-class American struggling with credit card debt and mortgage payments. Seizing on the unusual, the two parties have tried to convince voters that the other guy is not like us. Four years ago, race overshadowed the criticism of Obama. Today, the swipes are more subtle, suggesting that the incumbent, whose likability numbers outrank Romney, is somehow foreign.
Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus said this week that Obama’s policies “have created a sense that, for whatever reason, he’s looking for guidance as far as health care is concerned, as far as our spending is concerned, as far as these stimulus packages are concerned, that he’s looking to Europe for guidance.”
Former New York mayor and 2008 presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani agreed, citing Obama’s complaints about businesses.
“It sounds to me like President Obama’s more comfortable with the rigid, social democracies of Europe than the capitalist, entrepreneurial economy that we’ve had in America, traditionally. Otherwise I don’t know why he’d make all these attacks on American businesses the way he does,” Giuliani said in an interview Wednesday.
In his speech to the convention Tuesday night, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum said Obama’s policies “undermine the traditional family.”
Census figures show the traditional family of a husband, wife and two children — the same as Barack and Michelle Obama’s family — has changed significantly, replaced by a growing number of single-parent households and same-sex couples with children.
Priebus, in his speech, conjured up Norman Rockwell images that he argued would be anathema to Obama.
“President Obama’s never run a company. He hasn’t even run a garage sale or seen the inside of a lemonade stand. So it’s time for a president with real experience in the real economy,” the party chairman said.
Lakoff said Republicans are “trying their best to ‘other’ Obama — make him seem not us, not normal and therefore not worthy or qualified to be our president.”
The Obama campaign has aired an ad with Romney singing “America the Beautiful” as images from news articles flash on screen about “millions in a Swiss bank account,” ”tax havens like Bermuda … and the Cayman Islands.”
More recently, in an appeal to younger voters, Obama cast Romney as out of touch for suggesting that students borrow money from their parents to pay for college or start a business. “Borrow money if you have to from your parents. Get real Mitt,” says the spot.
In a remark Thursday in Virginia, Obama highlighted Romney’s wealth — along with his own — making it clear that both candidates are well-heeled.
“You can decide whether we give a massive new tax cut to folks like me and Mr. Romney, who don’t need it — he doesn’t even need — he needs it even less than I do — or whether we work to keep taxes low for Americans who are still trying to make it,” Obama said.
In that same speech, the 51-year-old Obama poked fun at the 65-year-old Romney. Talking about Romney’s criticism of his energy policies, Obama said, “Maybe the steam engine is more his speed.”
Defining who is American can be problematic for campaigns. In July, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a surrogate of the Romney campaign, said on a conference call that he wished Obama “would learn how to be an American.” That touched off a firestorm of criticism and Sununu later said he misspoke.