Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Romney and the politics of pandering

By Marty Linsky, Special to CNN
updated 10:20 PM EDT, Sat September 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marty Linsky: Mitt Romney drew attention to 2008 expectations for President Obama
  • Inevitably, he says, Obama couldn't meet the high expectations his followers had
  • Romney in 2012 and Obama in 2008 pandered to their audiences to gain votes, he says
  • Linsky: Pandering is how you get elected; leadership is about what you do in office

Editor's note: Marty Linsky is the co-founder and principal of Cambridge Leadership Associates and has been a member of the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School for 30 years, teaching and writing about leadership. He served as Chief Secretary and Counselor to Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld and was a three-term Republican state legislator. His latest book, co-authored with Ronald Heifetz and Alexander Grashow, is "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership."

(CNN) -- To his credit, Mitt Romney has framed the question just about right.

On Thursday night he said:

Marty Linsky
Marty Linsky

"How many days have you woken up feeling that something really special was happening in America? Many of you felt that way on Election Day four years ago. Hope and change had a powerful appeal. But tonight I'd ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama? You know there's something wrong with the kind of job he's done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him. The president hasn't disappointed you because he wanted to."

Romney cannot win unless thousands of people who voted for Obama four years ago abandon him in November.

Obama cannot win by asking people if they are better off now than they expected to be four years ago.

For most Americans, myself included, that is surely not the case. The expectations for Obama, again mine included, were so off-the-charts as to be unachievable.

Nevertheless, we reveled in the fantasy.

And it was a fantasy.

How could Obama possibly have accomplished much more than he did, given the complexity of the problems, the little power the president has over either the world situation or the domestic economy, and, of course, the deep commitment the Republicans voiced from the beginning of his term to deny him any progress that required congressional support?

Did Romney-Ryan's RNC strategy work?
A look back at the 2012 RNC
Can Romney create 12 million jobs?

(The GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell was clear. In the run-up to the 2010 election he said: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." He was candid at least, defeating Obama was more important to him than, say, making progress on the economic challenges facing the country or the seemingly intractable disputes in the Middle East.)

Obama himself began to understand this dilemma near the end of the 2008 campaign. He began to talk about the multiple, unreachable and sometimes conflicting dreams and hopes that the electorate had put on him, a process with which he had readily colluded in his quest for power.

So, from day one of his presidency, the challenge for Obama was not what he could accomplish, but whether he could do the tough work of leadership. In two dramatic cases, he showed he could -- launching the risky mission that killed Osama bin Laden and plowing ahead with the comprehensive health care bill after Scott Brown's win in Massachusetts.

The work of getting elected is about pandering to your own people, telling them what they want to hear. Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012 have pandered with the best of them, albeit with different approaches.

Obama pandered by talking about his aspirations so abstractly ("hope and change") that everyone could believe he was talking to them individually. Romney did it by taking any position on any issue that the Republican base wanted to hear, regardless of whether it was consistent with his past views or made any sense.

The work of leadership is about telling your own people the hard truths they need to hear...
Marty Linsky

The work of leadership is about telling your own people the hard truths they need to hear or, to say it more sharply, disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.

Romney is counting on the possibility that the inevitable disappointment in Obama that many people feel and the gap between their always unrealistic expectations and the hard realities are so large that he can wean enough of them away and sneak into the White House where if he and Paul Ryan really try to wrestle with the tough issues they, too, will repeat the same syndrome, disappointing their own people at a rate they can absorb.

The advantage that the Romney/Ryan team will have over Obama is the expectations for them will be so low that the inevitable disappointment will be much less four years from now.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Marty Linsky.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT