The latest attack from the right on President Obama comes in the form of former Navy SEALs who disparage him in a video that seeks to diminish his standing as commander-in-chief. Whoever commissioned the video did so weeks ago when the opinion polls showed Obama leading Mitt Romney – and putting distance between the two. One poll reported something unusual: An uptick in support of Obama among male voters, the group least likely to support him.
Four weeks ago I told a friend that I thought Romney walks funny and that over time it would grate on the minds of some men. My friend scoffed at me. It does sound ridiculous. But I learned in my time in television that some viewers watch everything and make judgments, both fair and unfair. More important is the vast majority of viewers who are not immediately critical but whose eyes nevertheless feed information to their brains that over time causes them to form images and impressions that jell later.
No one should forget the power of the optical nerve. It feeds directly into the brain. From Romney wafts an air about him that some unfair observers could adjudge as prissiness. My experience with focus groups suggests that at least some male voters somewhere have alluded to it. Perhaps the selection of Paul Ryan as a running mate had more to do with abdominals than we suspect. To me, Ryan visually adds to Romney but also overpowers him. Now I know perhaps why the attack on Obama has turned so personal and why the Democrats are returning fire.
Some former SEALs might help for a while to buoy Romney’s ship but not for long, for no one doubts Obama’s toughness, and he does not give the impression of hiding something, like his tax returns. In stark contrast, the public has still, tense pictures of Obama in the Situation Room as active-duty military – on his orders – swoop dangerously down on Bin Laden’s lair near Abbottabad. Obama has an extraordinary national security argument on his side that Romney-Ryan can only fantasize about from dawn to dusk and then dream about at night. I, for one, cannot go past any showing of “The Hunt for Bin Laden” on television. The animations are dramatic enough. Imagine the real film.
It is hard to believe that any viewer watching the program is not struck by Obama’s courage to pull the trigger. For men, the idea of getting Bin Laden speaks deeply to their DNA and arouses the male scent of the hunt. In that state of consciousness, I wonder if, absent politics, most members of the NRA would feel more comfortable with Obama than with Romney out in the brush or the monte, so to speak. I think Obama also evokes something else that I think men recognize in each other: In shorthand it comes across as confidence but is actually something more, something that speaks to deciding to act regardless of how it turns out. That “something” has been trivialized in our modern age and is considered trite and antediluvian, which it is, since it is as old as the hills: Manliness. The modern expression calls for men to “man up” to a challenge. Call it male chauvinism if you want. Whatever its name, it will percolate in the minds of voters and be front and center at the presidential debates.
The same split manifests itself in the vice presidential context. In comparison to a wizened Joe Biden who despite his gaffes dominates on foreign policy, Ryan could look like one of those young guns who worked at Enron but now has brought his accounting skills to Congress. In that vein, some lazy pundits, for lack of anything to say on 24/7 news, airily propose that the dreaded “October surprise” – an Israel attacking Iran, for example – could alter the course of the election. Nonsense. In such moments Obama is a known, proven quantity. His more masculine persona would leap out at male voters and grab them by the, well, heart. Madeleine Albright would use the word cojones.
And no one should dismiss how other women, who themselves have as wide a national security streak, perceive the candidates. When Romney confused “Sikh” with “sheik” after the shootings in Wisconsin, a fair number of women must have heard “chic”. And when reminded that none of Romney’s five healthy sons – not one – ever stopped to put on a military uniform, the brains of voters begin to connect the dots from whose contours an image takes hold. Among Hispanic and Latino men, especially veterans, few messages could resonate more.
Call it male chauvinism if you want. I call it human nature.
I also call it a lead at the polls on election day.
Jesse Treviño is the former editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman and writes at HispanicLatino.com.
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