On the campaign trail, it's good to be President and not just because your bus gets to run red lights and has everything you need to launch a war. It's good because Americans respond almost instinctively to the importance of the office. "I've been coming here my whole life," said Julia Konieczny, a 19-year-old sitting in the Kozy Corners diner in Oak Harbor, Ohio, on July 5. "But this is the coolest thing that has ever happened--ever."
She was talking about the fact that Barack Obama was about to walk in, say, "Everybody just pretend like I'm not here," and eat a cheeseburger. Minutes later, Konieczny was wiping her eyes, while her grandmother across the room, who owns the diner, was overcome with emotion. "I think my grandfather is having a hard time too," she said.
Of course, Obama was there not for the cheeseburger but to make a connection. "Out of touch" is the political attack du jour of the 2012 cycle--a three-word epithet for the empathy gap between your rival and the concerns of regular voters. Mitt Romney labels Obama an "out-of-touch liberal" every chance he gets, and the Obama campaign responds with ads highlighting Romney's old Swiss bank account and secretive Cayman Islands investments. "And he says the President is out of touch?" says Vice President Joe Biden, laughing.
In this free-fire zone of mutual disdain, the candidate who can actually get in touch with voters over ice cream or french fries might have an edge. That's why the Obama campaign has been gassing up the big black presidential bus, dubbed Ground Force One, for a packed schedule in the coming weeks of carefully choreographed "spontaneous" meet and greets at the homes, diners, fruit stands, ice cream shops, pubs and community centers of regular folks who just happen to live in swing states.
Obama kicked off the trip with a two-state, two-day, 11-stop tour of rural Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Locals came out of their homes in stifling heat, often without shirts, to raise their iPhones and wave to his motorcade. The President wanted to prove again that he is not naturally the professorial loner he so often appears to be in Washington. With Romney vacationing at his New Hampshire lake house, Obama spoke of his childhood vacations, taking Greyhound buses and staying at Howard Johnsons, where he "was excited just to go to the vending machine and get the ice bucket and get the ice."
Patterns developed. When meeting elderly couples, he asked repeatedly for their secret to a long-lasting marriage before delivering his punch line to the men: "Just do whatever she tells you to." When he saw groups of locals sitting together, he called them "troublemakers" and asked what sort of mischief they were getting into. When encountering teenage boys, he almost always inquired what sports they played, and NCAA logos on hats or T-shirts often sparked some trivia about their team. He squeezed the thigh of a baby, offered to play hoops for a vote, wrote "Dream Big Dreams" in a young girl's sketchbook and attempted to buy peaches and cookies for his traveling press corps. "Let me tell you, first of all, I love nurses," Obama said after meeting one at Kozy Corners. "Can I tell you? You look great. This is a good-looking woman."