Politico: Obama Levels More Personal Attacks Than Romney

A POLITICO analysis finds that "Obama and his top campaign aides have engaged far more frequently in character attacks and personal insults than the Romney campaign."

A POLITICO analysis finds that “Obama and his top campaign aides have engaged far more frequently in character attacks and personal insults than the Romney campaign.”

John Harris and Alexander Burns (“Verdict is in: Obama levels more personal attacks“):

With a few exceptions, Romney has maintained that Obama is a bad president who has turned to desperate tactics to try to save himself. But Romney has not made the case that Obama is a bad person, nor made a sustained critique of his morality a central feature of his campaign.

Obama, who first sprang to national attention with an appeal to civility, has made these kind of attacks central to his strategy. The argument, by implication from Obama and directly from his surrogates, is not merely that Romney is the wrong choice for president but that there is something fundamentally wrong with him.

To make the case, Obama and his aides have used an arsenal of techniques — personal ridicule, suggestions of ethical misdeeds and aspersions against Romney’s patriotism — that many voters and commentators claim to abhor, even as the tactics have regularly proved effective.


The imbalance is notable in the context of recent history. For more than a generation — since Michael Dukakis got savaged in 1988 and Bill Clinton decried the “politics of personal destruction” in the 1990s — it has been woven into the self-image of many Democrats that they are victims rather than victimizers when it comes to personal attacks.

Some Democrats in 2012 say this is exactly the point, and that Obama therefore is within his rights to try to turn Romney into a figure of ridicule or even contempt in the way that George W. Bush and his campaign succeeded in doing to John Kerry in 2004.


It is not that the Obama-led attacks on Romney’s character have been especially vicious by historical standards. But they have been both relentless and remorseless, designed to portray Romney as too flawed personally to be a viable political alternative :

— Obama senior adviser David Axelrod early in the campaign called Romney “a charlatan.” Senior White House adviser David Plouffe made the same hollow-man argument during the GOP primaries: “You get the sense with Mitt Romney that if he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he’d say it.”

— Obama’s campaign has suggested Romney is deceitful or corrupt. Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, highlighting inconsistencies in Romney’s explanation of his departure from Bain Capital, suggested that Romney is “misrepresenting his position at Bain to the SEC, which is a felony.” The alternative, she said, is Romney was lying to the American people. Last weekend, Cutter said that Romney and Paul Ryan think “lying is a virtue,” judging from the factual misrepresentations of the GOP convention.

— Obama’s campaign and surrogates say Romney’s business decisions and his personal finances call his patriotism into question.

Speaking Tuesday night at the convention here, former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said “Mitt Romney has so little economic patriotism that even his money needs a passport. It summers on the beaches of the Cayman Islands and winters on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.”

A little later, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley pummeled Romney over his offshore funds: “Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts don’t put cops on the beat or teachers in our classrooms.”

An Obama campaign ad criticizing Romney’s tenure as a “corporate CEO” who outsourced jobs concluded with the observation, “It’s just what you expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.”

And then there was the infamous ad from the pro-Obama group Priorities USA Action, featuring a laid-off steelworker, Joe Soptic, recounting how he lost his job and health insurance when Bain closed a factory. Years later, Soptic’s wife died and the man pins Romney with some responsibility: “I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone. And furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned.”

— Obama and his aides have portrayed Romney as a figure of ridicule, a kind of modern-day Thurston Howell III. The president mocked Romney’s use of the word “marvelous,” saying, “It’s a word you don’t often hear.” In Iowa last month, he made jeering references at three stops in a row to a story from the early ’80s about how Romney’s dog, Seamus, was put in a crate atop the car on Romney family vacations.

These remarks on the surface count as good-natured ribbing. But Obama aides have made clear that they have studied how similar images — a helmeted Dukakis looking like Rocky the Flying Squirrel while riding a tank in 1988, or Kerry wind-surfing in a wetsuit in 2004 — can be used to devastating effect.


“I would say that it’s a little ironic for a candidate who won the primaries telling his opponents not to whine, who just had a convention that was primarily devoted to going after me in ways that every media outlet has said bend the truth, and whose entire campaign has been built around assertions that don’t jibe with the facts — that he would want to spend most of his time talking about how tough we have been on him,” Obama said.

And while Romney hasn’t attacked Obama’s personal character, he has been biting, dismissing the president’s time as law professor and legislator as evidence he never really “had a job.” He has accused Obama of wanting to turn the United States into a European socialist state and even dropped a birth certificate joke last month in Michigan, although he made clear he believes it is beyond doubt that Obama was born in the United States.

But he hasn’t exactly kept a wide berth from people who have tried to challenge Obama’s legitimacy on this score. He has appeared repeatedly with Donald Trump, the bombastic New York real estate developer who nearly ran for president on a single-issue, birth certificate-themed campaign.

Perhaps most aggravating to Democrats, Romney has woven throughout his campaign the charge that Obama simply doesn’t understand American values. Romney has called Obama’s vision “extraordinarily foreign” and accused him of believing the United States is “just another nation with a flag.” A prominent Romney surrogate, former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, said on a conference call that Obama should “learn how to be an American.” In a Fox News appearance, Sununu said that Obama “spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something [and] spent the next set of years in Indonesia.”

In terms of the top level finding, while it strikes me as probably right as a news consumer, as a political scientist I’m a bit dubious of the methodology. What counts as a negative personal attack? Do some attacks count more than others or is this a binary scale? Who counts as a campaign spokesman? Is the scale weighted, so that those by higher ranking officials count more? The story doesn’t say; indeed, the analysis might be purely anecdotal.

Further, whether in fact the Obama team has been more personal than Romney’s—and, again, it’s quite possible—motivations presumably matter here. Is it that Obama’s people are willing to stoop to anything to win, while Romney’s is more concerned about the good of the Republic? Or is it simply a matter of internal polling telling Democrats that Romney’s character is his biggest weakness while Republican polling tells them that Obama is too likable for personal attacks to be effective?

Regardless of any of the above, two things are clear. First, Democrats are quite happy that Obama and company are willing to be ruthless to win. They feel that they’ve lost winnable races in the past because Republicans got away with brutal attacks that went unanswered. Second, the public doesn’t seem to be punishing Obama for negative attacks; he is, after all, leading in the polls.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    It ain’t beanbag.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    How does one attack the policies of the other with out it being an attack on the other?
    Politico has lost all relevance… Or did they ever have any to begin with? This.is.laughable.

  3. MBunge says:

    It may be possible that Obama’s campaign has made more attacks against Romney’s character but isn’t suffering any backlash from the voters because Romney’s character is so deserving of attack. If somebody clearly is a lying, flip-flopping, say-anything-to-win politician and you call them a lying, flip-flopping, say-anything-to-win politician…why is that out of bounds?


  4. It’s hard to add anything to those closing paragraphs. Not nice, but not surprising. The polls said that Obama was stronger on likability, and so that was something he had to strengthen or defend.

  5. bk says:

    Well, Virginia, if you read it in Politico, it must be so. Kind of like the New York Sun and Santa Claus – and equally believable.

  6. Fiona says:

    What nonsense. One of the primary motifs of the Romney campaign is the Obama either doesn’t understand America or isn’t really American–instead he’s some kind of European socialist or who knows what. This isn’t a personal attack casting aspersions on the President’s character?

    What differs with this campaign is Obama has decided to fight back. Romney has genuine issues with character, likability, and truthfulness. In a close election, it would be foolish not to exploit them. In this case, the “both sides do it” meme is correct. I don’t think one side has been more negative or personal than the other, but leave it to Politico to try to keep score.

  7. bk says:

    Is it that Obama’s people are willing to stoop to anything to win, while Romney’s is more concerned about the good of the Republic?

    No. This has been another installment of “Simple Answers to Stupid Questions”. What a bunch of crap.

  8. Ed in NJ says:

    You should be embarrassed about this article, not giving it weight.

    Politico is a joke. First off, there is no verdict. It’s an opinion piece. And it’s basically a dishonest piece at that. They acknowledged that Obama has been relentlessly attacked for years, but then try to distill things down to the “campaign” as a starting point for when the “attacks” started. Totally meaningless, but they got you to promote it, which is there whole business model in a nutshell.

  9. homerhk says:

    I read that article and in my view it was just gossip. They say the “verdict is in” but fail utterly to give any basis for that verdict. They don’t seem to classify Romney and his campaign’s attack on PBO’s “foreign” views or the constant refrain that he has apologised for America or all the other petty drip drip snide remarks about the President as ‘personal attacks’. Well, I do. Plus, in what world is “the President’s a good guy but just incompetent” not a personal attack? If someone said that about me, I would take that very personally.

  10. Ken says:

    I’m surprised to see James writing this piece – given the nature of the article, I would have expected Doug to be the one telling us Both Sides Are Bad,especially when writing about an article which paints Democrats as worse

  11. al-Ameda says:

    Wait a minute …. This is a “personal attack’?

    “Swiss bank accounts never built an American bridge. Swiss bank accounts don’t put cops on the beat or teachers in our classrooms.”

    ILook, for decades national Republicans have been accustomed to beating up on Democratic candidates without fear of reprisal or retribution. Clinton changed that, and it looks lie the Obama people have decided that it is not advisable to sit back and cede the field to Republicans.

    That said, I am sorry if Republicans are offended that Democrats are finally playing hardball.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    What BS.
    If a guys lies…and you call him a liar…that is a personal attack?
    What a bunch of hacks….

  13. sam says:

    @Dave Schuler:

    What Dave said.

    Moreover, supposing the article is accurate, when your opponent is expending googolplexes of ergs attempting to make his tabula as raza as possible by taking back every single thing he’s ever said or advocated, it’s left for you to define him. Tough noogies, Mitt. You brought it on yourself.

  14. C. Clavin says:

    Save it for Balloon Juice. – jhj

  15. Scott says:

    One, I didn’t see any “analysis”. Two, are the authors taking in the totality of attacks and ads from all sources, especially all the special interest SuperPACs?

  16. James Joyner says:

    @bk: POLITICO is a web-era publication and cuts up stories to maximize eyeballs. But they’re a legit paper, widely read by both sides in Washington.

    @al-Ameda: This isn’t Romney complaining but a POLITICO analysis.

  17. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:

    @al-Ameda: This isn’t Romney complaining but a POLITICO analysis.

    Of course …. I understand that, but the article lost some credibility when THAT is characterized as a ‘personal attack.’

  18. James Joyner says:

    @al-Ameda: Gotcha. Probably not the best quote to use; certainly, there have been personal attacks on Romney for using offshore accounts and therefore having something to hide.

  19. Rick DeMent says:

    Sure, but let’s face facts Romney is a target rich environment.

  20. legion says:

    So, when Republicans have spent the last decade calling Democrats “terrorist sympathizers”. Muslim-lovers (as an insult), Marxists, Socialists, and Communists (without the slightest understanding of what those words even mean) – it’s just “politics as usual”. But when Democrats point out that the Republicans are straight-up lying, _that’s_ a personal attack?

    Politico has become absolutely despicable. They’re no better than Tucker Carlson’s rag – not even a pretense of professionalism. When they were tallying up “personal attacks”, did they count every single time Obama’s birth certificate was brought up? How about his religion? How about his college transcripts?

  21. bk says:

    @James Joyner:

    But they’re a legit paper, widely read by both sides in Washington.

    “Both sides” probably read Drudge and Daily Caller on occasion as well. Doesn’t make them “legit papers”. Politico is a bunch of crap.

  22. bandit says:

    Talk about studying the obvious. What else is Obama possibly going to run on? 3.5 years of abject failure?

  23. @bandit:

    If you are going to go for the cheap shot, the housing crash was the abject failure, and not the attempt at recovery.

    It’s like you run over a guy with a car, visit him in the hospital the next week, and say “why aren’t you up and about? Your doctors are abject failures!

  24. jukeboxgrad says:


    Romney hasn’t attacked Obama’s personal character

    Baloney. Birtherism is a personal attack, a particularly important and despicable personal attack. Mitt effectively endorsed birtherism when he leaped into bed with Trump (and again when he told that birth certificate ‘joke’). So Mitt has no standing to whine about personal attacks on his character (also because those attacks happen to be true). And Politico loses credibility by failing to give this problem the weight it deserves.

  25. David M says:

    The conclusion makes sense, although I don’t think it means much. Obama is campaigning against an unlikeable corporate type who doesn’t want to talk about his own record and has released relatively little policy information. Of course Obama is attacking Romney more personally than if he was talking about actual proposals instead of vague generalities.

    If Romney, Ryan and the GOP wanted the election to be about big issues, they would make actual policy proposals.

  26. Nikki says:

    The argument, by implication from Obama and directly from his surrogates, is not merely that Romney is the wrong choice for president but that there is something fundamentally wrong with him.

    But playing the race card and birtherism is in no way a personal attack against Obama.

  27. C. Clavin says:

    WTF is Balloon Juice?

  28. M. Bouffant says:

    Is it that Obama’s people are willing to stoop to anything to win, while Romney’s is [sic] more concerned about the good of the Republic?

    Romney’s only concern, as he has admitted, is that he not pay one more penny in tax than he can possibly avoid. This seems to be the motivation for his campaign as well.

    The recent poll which indicated people wouldn’t even believe that Ryan had proposed all the granny-starving in his budget means that Romney & Ryan can not run on their own policy proposals; their only option is to attack the President personally.

  29. GeoffBr says:

    If Politico is going to level these charges, aren’t they obligated to quantify them somehow? A number of these quotes seem rather weak as personal attacks (e.g., the Swiss bank accounts), and as is pointed out in the post exactly who counts as a “surrogate” is so vague as to be meaningless. But at a minimum I would expect to have some sort of numerical comparison of the Romney campaign’s attacks vs. those of Obama’s; otherwise we’re purely in the realm of anecdote.