October 14th, 2012
10:41 AM ET

Letters to the President #1364: 'Likeability'

Reporter's Note: I write to President Obama every day, and I never receive a reply. Hmmm.. I wonder if he is mad at me?

Dear Mr. President,

I’ve been thinking about that odd grin that Biden kept putting on during his debate with Ryan. Sometimes he seemed genuinely amused, sometimes condescending, sometimes smarmy, and sometimes mean…even if he was smiling.

In any event it reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to mention to you. Probably your single most bankable asset in this entire race is your likeability. Now, I’m not demeaning your ideas or policy or record. I’m just saying that the polls and experience both suggest that an awful lot of voters support you mainly because they just generally like you. They think you are a good guy.

That is a genuine asset. Mitt Romney has been trying for months to get a little of that magic, and only now seems to be scratching up a little. But the likeability factor is also a burden, because it makes it hard to play tough.

Think about it. After your last debate, you no doubt want to come out swinging like Jake LaMotta in the next one, and certainly an awful lot of your fans would like to see that. But you must walk a careful line. If you go on the attack as furiously as you might wish, it is fully possible that you will seize the offensive and beat your opponent back into a corner. The risk, however, is that in doing so you may win the battle and lose the war.

If you tarnish your likeability, that may do far more to hurt your re-election chances than any substantial point of fact. I’m not saying you need to be soft, or gentle. I’m just saying you must be aware of risk. There are ways of being tough and strong, that don’t seem mean, or patronizing, or unlikable. You must be the master of those techniques. Simply sounding the charge and wading into Romney might produce the results you are after…but then again, maybe not. And if it goes the wrong way, I’m sure you will not like that.

Call if you can.