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Obama emphasizes new aspects of life story

His talk of his humble beginnings now focuses on the stresses of debt and his grandmother hitting the glass ceiling. Aides to Republican Mitt Romney say the president is trying to sow division.

April 24, 2012|By Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
President Obama at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — There were no silver spoons, but lots of school loans. Grandmother worked her way up the ranks at the bank. Later, it took two incomes to pay the condo mortgage and the bills.

If all this doesn't sound familiar, it soon will.

As he heads into a faceoff with Republican Mitt Romney, President Obama's speeches are revisiting parts of the life story that helped propel his rise. There are nods to his humble beginnings, his hardworking grandmother and the stresses of debt — in short, stories that best connect with the middle-class voters his reelection may depend on.

"Michelle and I, we've been in your shoes," the president told students Tuesday at the University of North Carolina as he called on Congress to extend a break in school loan interest rates. "Like I said, we didn't come from wealthy families."

The anecdotes serve a double purpose.

After more than three years in office, the trappings of the presidency can begin to take a toll, causing voters to see the incumbent more as a high-priced suit behind a podium than as a person whose life once resembled theirs. Obama campaign aides are mindful of that potential problem.

Voters still show a high awareness of the president's history, but "those things can fade when all people see is you in an official role," said Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod.

"It's part of the story to animate why he does what he does, what he cares about," Axelrod said. "I think that it's a natural thing for him to draw on his own experience; he always has."

And, of course, all those references to silver spoons and college loans draw a sharp contrast with Romney.

Both Romney and Obama — cerebral, nonemotive candidates with Harvard degrees — have had trouble connecting with certain voters, particularly economically stressed, middle-class and working-class Americans. That's where judicious use of a candidate's biography and the contrasting life experiences of an opponent can sometimes help.

Obama has not directly criticized Romney's wealth, but his campaign and Democratic allies have eagerly cast the Republican as an out-of-touch creature of the country club set, a candidate who enjoys a low tax rate and, as Obama's campaign manager recently reminded reporters, an elevator for his cars.

Romney aides have accused Obama of trying to sow division.

"Gov. Romney believes we should attack problems, not people," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "It's unfortunate that President Obama feels the need to divide Americans in an effort to distract from his terrible record on jobs."

Obama aides argue the president is merely telling his story — not taking digs. When he noted last week that he "wasn't born with a silver spoon" in his mouth, White House and campaign officials noted the phrase had appeared in speeches going back to 2009.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said anyone who thought otherwise was "a little oversensitive."

As a candidate in 2008, Obama excelled at using his personal narrative to underscore — sometimes to actually carry — his message, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. As president, he has been less successful at keeping that narrative going, she said.

Obama's identification as the child of a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, with a grandfather who fought in World War II, reinforced his claim to be a politician who could both transcend norms and be anchored in the nation's past.

"That argument has already been made" at this point, Jamieson said. "It's a backdrop to the people for whom it matters. Now he needs to make specific arguments to the constituencies he needs to regain."

As a result, the emphasis of the personal narrative emerging in 2012 differs in some respects from the biographical details Obama stressed four years ago.

Gone, at least for now, are the frequent references to Obama's mother once relying on food stamps to get by. As the president and Romney battle for women's votes, a story about Obama's grandmother hitting the glass ceiling in her work is prominent, particularly in First Lady Michelle Obama's remarks. The story about his mother's fight with insurance companies is little mentioned.

And while Obama has been making much of late of his struggles with student loans — "For the first eight years of our marriage, we were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage," he said Tuesday — he rarely mentions the Ivy League institution that all the borrowing paid for.

Obama made the student loan references as part of his case for preventing an increase in student loan interest rates, which are scheduled to double in July from 3.4% to 6.8%. Congress has not yet acted to stop the scheduled increase, and Republicans have suggested they oppose an extension of the lower rate.

Although Romney agrees with Obama on the issue, he still was the target of the speech, Jamieson noted. When Obama said he "didn't just get a policy briefing on this," but had lived it, the comparison to Romney was understood, she said — as made clear by the cheering crowd.

"The implication is, Romney never experienced that," she said. "Look for this to be a campaign in which the contrasts are implicit. You don't have to explicitly attack Romney. The audience will do that for you."

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

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