At NBC, to say we have Olympics fever is an understatement. For a few short weeks every four years, the Games overtake the presidential campaign as the more compelling news event. But competing in the Olympics and running for the White House have some things in common: Years of training can culminate in the ultimate prize. And bad luck or one wrong move can torpedo a player’s dreams. In keeping with the Olympic spirit, we decided to put the presidential candidates through a virtual competition that mirrors the one they’re currently in. Let’s use a sport that’s popular and one that, if President Obama and Mitt Romney actually tried it, would surely entertain audiences more than your typical stump speech: women’s gymnastics. Let the games begin!
The balance beam
As you might expect, in years past Democratic candidates have struggled on the balance beam by consistently falling to the left; Republican contenders, particularly during the preliminary rounds (in politics, we call them the primaries), have a tendency to lose their equilibrium and fall to the right. Obama won the gold medal in the 2008 all-around competition partly because of his prowess on the beam: He promised to bring American politics back into balance by ushering in an era of post-partisanship, which the judges went gaga over. But he’s been shakier on the beam since then.
While Obama’s base has given him more leeway to lean away from the left side when he has needed to in the past four years (see the debt-ceiling fight), he almost lost his balance over a same-sex marriage spin that was added late to his routine. Obama was a bit wobbly on that move, but after teammate Vice President Biden added it to his repertoire, the president had to learn it as well to stay competitive. He ultimately kept his balance and doesn’t seem to have lost too many deductions from the judges.
This event has been much trickier for Romney. He barely qualified for the bronze in the all-around back in 2008, eventually losing because he couldn’t prove to conservatives that he wouldn’t lose his balance and stray to the left. This year, while he never fell off the beam during the prelims, he looked shaky a few times, especially when the debate turned to health care.
Looking toward the finals of this competition, the ultimate test for both men is proving that they can strike the balance of satisfying their bases while appealing to the political center. The president clearly is more comfortable in this event, but he has a lot of balance beam failures since 2008 to answer for. Romney still looks tentative, though, as his base doesn’t seem to be quite willing to cut him some slack.
The ﬂoor exercise
The point of the floor exercise is twofold: First, to prove that you can do a certain number of moves. Second, to show some artistic ability to set yourself apart. The most comparable event on the campaign trail is the stump speech. Obama had a spectacular debut in this event on the floor of the 2004 Democratic convention. It was a star turn similar to that of Gabby Douglas, whose performance on the Olympic stage has captivated the fans and judges in London. It’s fitting that, when Obama called the women’s gymnastics team on Wednesday to congratulate them on their team gold medal, he reportedly said to Douglas: “You just tore it up. I know how hard you worked to get there.”