They really, really like Obama, but not sure they’ll back him

Many voters at odds over president’s geniality and capability

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Betsy Livingston is an unabashed supporter of Mitt Romney. She has met the Republican presidential nominee on a dozen occasions over the years at campaign events in Orange County, Calif., where she and her husband, Dan, are active in GOP politics.

But you won’t hear Mrs. Livingston bashing President Obama, and there’s a reason for that: She knows him, too. She met him after enrolling in the sixth grade at the Punahou School in Honolulu, where he also was a student. Barry Obama was the chubby kid who grew into a lanky jock, wrote funny entries in her yearbook and regularly greeted her in the hallway between classes.

They moved in “very different circles,” she recalled. “He wasn’t that involved with anything except basketball and sports, and I was in student government. He partied a lot, whereas I, as a practicing Mormon, did not, so we were on opposite sides of the spectrum.”

Even so, she considered him a friend. “He was always really nice to me. He knew my name; he said ‘hi’ to me,” Mrs. Livingston said. “He was pretty cool. He had a little bit of a swagger to him.”

Mrs. Livingston knew then what the rest of America has since learned about the president: He is a hard guy to know, but also a hard guy to dislike. He enters the Democratic National Convention this week with some of the worst economic indicators of any president since the Great Depression, yet polls consistently show him in at least a dead heat with Mr. Romney.

Americans may not be impressed with his job performance — an average of polls compiled by the political website RealClearPolitics shows his job-disapproval rating at 48.7 percent, compared with 47.7 percent who approve — but most voters do not outwardly detest him. His average favorability ranking during the same period, Aug. 13 to Aug. 26, comes in at 49 percent, compared with 45.4 percent who view him unfavorably.

Compare that with the left’s seething hatred of George W. Bush or the right’s outraged disgust with Bill Clinton a few years into their presidencies. The president’s likability may not be more important to most voters than his achievements or competence, but it’s close.

The ‘Cool Dad’

Mr. Obama instantly entered the history books in 2009 as the nation’s first black president, but it was only after Mr. Obama took office that many voters were able to fill in some of the blanks on his personality, tastes and foibles.

He sings a mean Al Green, but endured national ridicule for his taste in “mom jeans.” His rare and glancing references to racial controversy — think Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates and Florida teenager Trayvon Martin — can ignite ferocious cultural debates. He can be a trash-talker, whether on the pickup basketball court, skewering Donald Trump at a black-tie Washington dinner or taunting a roomful of Boston Red Sox supporters about a trade favorable to his Chicago White Sox.

He is, by all accounts, a devoted father and an equally devoted weekend golfer. Because he is not a natural schmoozer, his golf foursomes and his social outings tend to revolve around a small group of old friends and aides. He is not afraid to call out rapper Kanye West — twice — as a “jackass” and prefers cutting-edge cable fare such as HBO’s “The Wire” and Showtime’s “Homeland.” But in his 2009 appearance on “The View” — the first time a sitting president has appeared on the morning talk show — Mr. Obama confessed that he didn’t know who Snooki of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” was.

Hilary Busis, writing on Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com site, said the cool vibe Mr. Obama exuded when he took office has been dulled over the past four years.

“The American people are now better acquainted with the real Barack Obama — and it turns out that he’s not actually the political equivalent of Arthur Fonzarelli. (Or whoever the kids are into these days.) Instead, Obama is a textbook example of an archetype on the rise: the Cool Dad,” she wrote.

“As the name implies, Cool Dads aren’t like the painfully unhip parents who often pop up on TV. They listen to jazz, blues and unobjectionable hip-hop (Obama’s a fan of Miles Davis and Jay-Z), claim allegiance to classic films that have a bit of an edge (the president cites ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘The Godfather Parts I and II’ as favorites), and keep in shape by playing real sports rather than huffing and puffing on an elliptical.”

But, she added, with their frumpy pants, moralizing streak and occasional cultural cluelessness, Cool Dads “are still dads at heart.”

Whatever the image Mr. Obama projects, it has kept his personal ratings with voters consistently higher than the ratings they give him on how he is doing his job.

Pulling punches

That may be why speakers at last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., were careful to mute their criticism of the president. Instead of blasting him, most speakers expressed more sorrow than fury about Mr. Obama, and those who did stuck to criticism of his job performance.

“Barack Obama’s failed us. But look, it’s understandable. A lot of people fail at their first job,” former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said in one of the convention’s harder-hitting speeches.

Former Rep. Tom Tancredo, who ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, said the challenge for Democrats at their convention will be to build on the president’s likability with success stories from his first term in office, such as the assassination of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden.

“Democrats need to find a way to market their candidate other than by attacking Romney,” the former congressman from Colorado said. “I would imagine you’ll hear a lot of bin Laden. Otherwise, all they’ve got is, ‘Romney’s rich, Romney’s terrible, Romney’s a Mormon,’ and I don’t know if that’s enough to win the day.”

A Gallup poll released Aug. 24, a few days before the Republican National Convention, showed Mr. Obama continuing to lead Mr. Romney on a host of positive personal traits, starting with being “likable.” Of those polled, 54 percent agreed that Mr. Obama was “likable,” compared with 31 percent for Mr. Romney.

At the same time, the Gallup survey noted that the president’s likability edge has narrowed as Mr. Romney has become better known to the electorate. Some 63 percent of those polled called Mr. Obama “likable” in May, while Mr. Romney’s likability had increased slightly, the Gallup survey found.

“Barack Obama retains a significant edge over Mitt Romney on personal dimensions, particularly in terms of his ‘likability,’ while Americans still believe Romney is better able to handle the economy,” the poll analysis said.

Mr. Romney improved his own likability in the aftermath of the convention. A Reuters/Ipsos rolling poll conducted from Aug. 27 through Friday found that the Republican nominee’s likability climbed from 26 percent to 31 percent. Mr. Obama’s remained at 48 percent during the same period.

“The Republicans had the task at the convention of making their candidate more palatable, likable to the American electorate,” Ipsos pollster Julia Clark told Reuters. “Our data suggests they have absolutely succeeded.”

History shows the likable candidate emerges as the victor more often than not. The most recent example was the election of 2004, when Mr. Bush defeated Sen. John Kerry, a Democrat who consistently received lower scores on the likability index.

Republican Ronald Reagan clobbered Democratic opponent Walter F. Mondale both on Election Day and in terms of likability in 1984, but Mr. Reagan also had the advantage of a robust economy. Ditto Democrat Mr. Clinton, who was seen as far more likable than Republican Bob Dole in the 1996 election, but also could point to a booming private sector.

This year’s election will test whether a likable president can emerge victorious in a down economy. Republicans are betting that he can’t, in part because his likability may have been oversold by the polls.

“I would say the polls generally oversample Democrats, and therefore, they’re a little bit skewed,” said Mr. Tancredo. “But if it’s true, if Obama really is liked as much as people say, then that can go a long way toward overcoming the economic doldrums people feel.”

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