Obama, Romney, and the Car Campaign

Conservatives have loved hitting the Obama family for their lifestyle, whether they’re criticizing the price of Michelle Obama’s or running with phony stories about her lingerie shopping. So there was something entertaining about seeing National Review criticize President Obama for an act of personal frugality—it turns out the President and his family haven’t owned or leased a car since 2007.

That’s an entirely sensible decision: when you’re famous enough to need Secret Service protection, you’re famous enough not to be driving yourself. And given the level of racist insanity Obama’s candidacy and presidency unleashed, Obama needs protection more than most candidates. If you’re not going to be driving yourself, and you don’t particularly like driving, there’s no particular reason to keep a car you’re not going to use. Obama’s decision is actually in line with a broad trend in America—car ownership fell for the first time ever in 2009, mostly because the economy encouraged people to cut down on redundant cars. But as conservatives look for ways to pin rising gas prices on Obama, it’s not particularly surprising that someone would make a weak attempt to paint Obama as out of touch because he’s following security protocol and making a reasonable financial decision.

Mitt Romney, meanwhile, has been emphasizing his bona fides as a car owner as a way of proving he’s something of a regular Joe—or at least committed to the American auto industry—particularly in advance of the Michigan primary. He attended the Daytona 500 on Sunday, where he was photographed with Lenny Kravitz.

On the campaign trail, Romney’s car-related lines have a way of emphasizing just how distant he is from the average American car enthusiast. In December, Reuters noted how Romney tried to back away from his disastrous offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 in a debate by suggesting that the amount was too much for him to pay for a Nash Metropolitan he saw while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. And Romney’s talked about wanting to add a Mustang or Corvette to his collection, which already includes a ’62 Rambler, a gift from his son, “some day, when I have time to fuss with it.”

Then, on February 23, Romney said that “I like the fact that most of the cars I see are Detroit-made automobiles. I drive a Mustang and a Chevy pick-up truck. Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually. And I used to have a Dodge truck. So I used to have all three covered.” If the sentiment was meant to be a populist one, Romney missed. There’s a difference between supporting local businesses and describing personal car consumption that would be capable of propping up an industry.