After his primary night sweep on Tuesday, Mitt Romney unveiled a new line of attack against the president. Reminding voters that Barack Obama has claimed that "he is doing an historically great job," Romney declared in a bemused tone, "It's enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One —surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you're great and you're doing a great job —it's enough to make you think that you might become a little out of touch."
This game of out-of-touch football represents a fascinating political ploy. Romney, the Man from Bain Capital, has been mocked by Democrats: He considers $360,000 in speaking fees to be chump change and is adding an elevator for cars to his California dream house. So in a clever bit of bounce-back rhetoric, Romney claimed that Obama is even more cocooned from reality, surrounded by White House sycophants and basking in his hubris.
Beyond the schoolyard taunts ("What sticks to me, double sticks to you"), there is a surprising level of truth to both sides of the argument. Even more surprising for politics, the issues embedded in this back-and-forth directly relate to life in the Oval Office in 2013, no matter who is President Out-of-Touch.
The line about Obama swooning over his own historical greatness is predicated on what may be the most tin-eared presidential remark in memory. In an outtake from his interview last December with "60 Minutes," Obama said, "I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president —with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR and Lincoln." Ignore, for the moment, that the Obama claim neglects Woodrow Wilson (passage of a federal income tax and the creation of the Federal Reserve during his first year in office) and blithely assumes that his health care law will pass constitutional muster with the Supreme Court. What remains stunning is that Obama actually sees himself in these Mount Rushmore terms —and was willing to say it with the TV cameras rolling.
Romney was also dead-on in his observation about true believers aboard Air Force One. But the problem transcends Obama —and speaks to a dilemma that afflicts all modern presidents.
In an important and sadly neglected 1970 book, " The Twilight of the Presidency," George Reedy compared the White House to Versailles, with the president as the Sun King and his aides as royal courtiers. Reedy, who was Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, knew something about presidents who demand fawning staffers. But since the entire West Wing revolves around the whims of the president (even a personally modest man like Gerald Ford), it is inevitable that aides learn that the way up is through sucking up. The secret, Reedy explained, is for the ambitious staffer "to be present ... when 'good news' arrives and to be certain that someone else is present when the news is bad."
So would President Mitt Romney be uniquely able to resist the blandishments of White House flatterers?