Published October 19, 2012
"If four Americans get killed, it's not optimal. We are going to fix it. All of it."
-- President Obama on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" talking about the attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
More political hackery has been committed in service of the myth of "likability" than any other trope of recent years.
Wrongly believing that American voters are fools who cast their votes for commander in chief in the same way that they do for contestants on "American Idol," consultants, politicians and pundits have long worshiped at the altar of "likability."
And on Thursday, President Obama made himself a human sacrifice to the "likability" gods.
Obama has a serious problem on his hands. His administration failed to prevent a deadly attack by Islamist militants on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Among those killed was the U.S. ambassador to the woe-begotten nation, the first ambassador killed since the Carter administration.
The attack by Al Qaeda affiliates not only undermined the president's re-election argument that with the killing of Usama bin Laden the jihadist group was "back on its heels" but occurred in a country where Obama had helped in the ouster and killing of the previous leader and helped install a new, Islamist government.
In the aftermath, the president sought to portray the raid as an unavoidable, spontaneous event triggered by a video clip deemed offensive by Muslims. The message was that the attack did not represent a lapse in security or a problem with the policy of nurturing the growth of Islamist political groups in the region, but because of the intolerance of Christian fundamentalists in America.
This, instead, compounded the problem as evidence mounted not only that the administration had ample warning of the deteriorating situation in Libya and security shortfalls but also when it was revealed that the attack was a premeditated raid. The failure to prevent the raid and the decision to blame American intolerance looked all the worse.
Obama's strategy for turning things around was to accuse Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of exploiting the deadly attack. In their second debate, Obama took great umbrage at Romney's criticism and any suggestion that he was not trying to find out how such a failure had occurred on his watch or that he was covering it up.
The president talked about being "the one who has to greet those coffins" and spoke of the solemnity of receiving the caskets of those killed in the Benghazi raid.
Umbrage would not have been enough to get Obama through Monday's foreign-policy debate, but it was a good start on getting out of the hole.
And then Obama went on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central. The show's sarcastic tone and liberal bent makes it a favorite among the young voters in the president's political base.
But the appearance was also very much about "likability," and an ongoing effort by both candidates to show that they are lovable, regular folks who like to laugh it up or discuss their favorite characters from reality television. Romney tries to do this less, probably because he is less adept at it. Obama, however, has gone whole hog.
The reason is that the conventional political wisdom is that the candidate deemed more "likable" in polls has triumphed in every recent presidential election. And believing that that "likability" is the cause of the victory, candidates and their consultants have pursued this intangible measure of affability like conquistadors searching for Incan gold.
Obama so often hypes his love of beer, as if to say that he's certainly the candidate Americans would rather have a beer with and if they do, he's got the suds. And, by the way, Mitt Romney is as dry as a cafeteria turkey sandwich.
But this is an election in which neither candidate is particularly warm or fuzzy. Obama tries to stay ahead by talking about sports and beer so often and by making so many TV appearances, but Ralph Kramden he ain't.
Americans may think of Obama and Romney as good fathers and conscientious leaders, but neither of them excels at being a "regular guy." Both went to prestigious prep schools, both went to Harvard Law School and both have led lives of privilege. Neither is someone with whom blue-collar voters have much in common.
But voters understand the perilous position of the nation on the economy, the federal debt, the mounting problems around the world and the deepening dysfunction of the government in Washington. The desperation is deepening for solutions and for a worldview big and broad enough to confront these difficult times for the republic.
But since "likability" is still considered a sacred aim of any politician, Obama made his appearance with Stewart. And in doing so, re-botched the Libya question.
Obama meant to correct Stewart and take the high ground when he used the host's word "optimal." Stewart was trying to get the president to admit that his administration has bungled the communications effort in the wake of the attack. Stewart was offering the president a way out -- to admit that he might have done a better job relating information to the public, even if he had handled the real issues right.
Since the president's most common admission of error is to say that he got the policy right but didn't pay enough attention to the politics, Stewart might reasonably have thought that Obama would grab the lifeline.
Instead, Obama tried to invoke the same umbrage that he did with Romney on Tuesday, and veered back to the deaths themselves. He was trying to gently chide Stewart for focusing on political messaging at a time of mourning.
And in that moment, Obama gave away his best defense on Libya. Having used the tactic with a friendly host on Comedy Central, how can Obama summon it again in the final presidential debate? The woeful word choice and the setting were a disaster.
All in the name of being "likable."
There is no good way to merge punch lines about his opponent and policy points about al Qaeda in Libya, but in pursuit of the electoral El Dorado of "likability," Obama tried and failed.
And Now, A Word From Charles
"Tell the truth. It's easier to memorize."
-- Charles Krauthammer on "Special Report with Bret Baier."
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.