Obama and Romney: kinship in chicken, college and 'Star Trek'

Mark Leibovich / New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — Points of unity: Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama both like process-driven decisions, iPads, ABC’s “Modern Family” and chicken.

Grilled chicken, not fried, in keeping with the shared body-mindedness of the combatants (Obama does treadmill and hoops, Romney elliptical and bike). Spicy, too, as Romney (who often peels the skin off) has demonstrated with his endorsement of the jalapeno chicken sandwich at Carl’s Jr. and Obama has with his praise of the grilled chicken tacos made by the White House chef.

While a few shared tastes do not erase the general distaste of this campaign, the candidates do have a surprising amount in common. Granted, little of it concerns how to fix the economy, shrink the deficit or deal with Russia.

But interviews with people from the candidates’ overlapping realms — at Harvard, in the health care policy arena and in politics — yield similar observations about their personalities and their leadership and decision-making styles. Both are analytical introverts operating in a province of extroverts.

“Neither is the epitome of the backslapping pol,” said Edward Rendell, a Democrat and former governor of Pennsylvania who knew Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. “Both of them are almost shy, which is amazing in this business,” said Rendell, who is a supporter of Obama.

Neither candidate has much stomach for small talk or idle chatter. They have both been called difficult to know and even aloof at times. But if they were to convene for, say, a chicken barbecue — not likely, but whatever — they could explore some shared affinities and experiences. After-dinner, for instance, maybe over plates of pie (enjoyed by both), Obama and Romney could play the “did you know” game from their Harvard days or name-check the policy experts they consulted during their respective health care overhauls.

They could compare counties visited in Iowa, activists fawned over in New Hampshire and the irritations of dealing with blowhard colleagues in state government.

They could exchange trivia about “Star Trek” (liked by both) or complaints about the press (disliked).

Supporters admire them as confident and disciplined leaders. They are described as cautious and deliberate decision-makers who distrust gut instinct and the emotional tenor of the modern political debate. In previous jobs, as governor of Massachusetts (Romney) and senator from Illinois (Obama), both were viewed as short-timers passing through to headier stations. Each served one term in those posts, or less (in Obama’s case), and spent much of it plotting or actively running for the next.

There is a restless quality to both Obama and Romney, people close to them say. They spent formative periods living abroad and attended several colleges before carving out political careers as above-it-all outsiders. They had their convictions questioned by ideological purists in their parties (and their religions, too, by others).

Each suffered tough losses in early campaigns that might have, in retrospect, been ill-advised: Romney lost a 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts against the incumbent, Edward Kennedy; Obama was crushed in a 2000 Democratic congressional primary in Illinois by the incumbent, Bobby Rush.

While each was the product of doting and strong mothers, the candidates forged their identities in part through the specters of their fathers — or the absence of one, in the case of Obama.

“Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes,” Obama wrote in his 2006 book “The Audacity of Hope.” He has repeated the line often, sometimes adding that both might be true in his case.

Clearly a “father’s expectations” guy, Romney idolized his father, George, an auto executive turned politician. He followed his father everywhere, worked tirelessly on his campaigns and placed his photo on his desk in his freshman dorm room.