POWELL, Ohio — Mitt Romney conceded President Barack Obama has succeeded in making him a less likable person, but he offered a defiant retort to those hoping he will open up this week: "I am who I am."
Romney quoted that Popeye line three times in a 30-minute interview with POLITICO about his leadership style and philosophy, swatting away advice from Republicans to focus on connecting with voters in a more emotional, human way at this convention. Instead he vowed to keep his emphasis — in the campaign and any administration to follow — on a relentlessly goal-driven, business-minded approach that has shaped his life so far.
"I know there are some people who do a very good job acting and pretend they're something they're not," Romney said. "You get what you see. I am who I am."
To press the point, he said the GOP would even try to turn Obama's still-high personal favorability rankings back on him at its convention this week, by making the simple case to voters: nice guy, failed president.
"I don't think everybody likes me," Romney said. "I don't believe that, by any means. But I do believe that people of this country are looking for someone who can get the country growing again with more jobs and more take-home pay, and I think they realize this president had four years to do that. … He got every piece of legislation he wanted passed, and it didn't work. I think they want someone who has a different record, and I do."
Romney pledged to bring corporate order to the West Wing. He promised to issue a checklist for his first 100 days, similar to the printed scorecard he used in Massachusetts; treat his Cabinet like a board of directors; and try to restart the economy using the hands-on management style that made him hundreds of millions of dollars.
Romney's answers were the clearest window yet into how the lessons he gained in the corporate world would be applied to the presidency. He revealed, for the first time, how some of those views were shaped, saying:
• Bill Bain, the founder of Bain Capital, and J.W. "Bill" Marriott, a fellow Mormon and the CEO of the hotel chain carrying his name, are the most effective leaders he has ever been around: "I learned leadership by watching people."
• Biographies, not business books, inspire his thinking, saying "tears welled up" when he finished reading David McCullough's work on John Adams.
• His Cabinet would be dominated by people from the private sector, citing Meg Whitman of Hewlett-Packard as a model for female leaders he would like to surround himself with.
• Debra L. Lee, the CEO of Black Entertainment Television, is also a leader he would take a close look at, though he couldn't recall her name, just her title: "From all reports, a highly effective manager."
• He rarely spends time thinking through past decisions or missteps made, which is one reason he has no regrets about the "birth certificate" joke: "I don't look back. I don't look back."
Still, during the interview, Romney made plain he is tired of the criticism that he is stiff, distant or not broadly liked by voters.
Again and again, he argued that he was likable enough to bring together people of divergent views to rescue the Olympics, pioneer profitmaking ideas at Bain, govern a Democratic state, and even to win over peers in school.
"I was voted the president of my fraternity," he said. "They don't call them fraternities at Brigham Young University. They're called Service Clubs. It was the Cougar Club. But you don't get voted to be head of your group if you don't get along with people, if you don't connect with people."
Rather than conceding a flaw or missing political gene, however, Romney blamed the opposition's advertising for his likability gulf.
"What has been the focus of the Obama ads?" Romney asked. "Do they talk about my record in Massachusetts? Do they talk about my policy? No, they're all personal attack ads that in some respects say not only outrageous, but entirely wrong things. People don't know me, and they haven't had a chance to see me yet, (so) they might believe those things. So, that's going to have some influence. I understand that."
"Certainly, their ads have some impact or they wouldn't be running them," he continued. "But there would be an opportunity for people to get to know me better during the debates and during the time in the campaign season when people are actually paying a lot of attention to the candidates."
For better or worse — and the final 10 weeks of the campaign will test whether it's better or worse in the minds of undecided voters — Romney sees life, business and governing as an exercise in problem-solving, not connecting with a truck driver in Ohio, true believers in the GOP and even his own staff.
His language, his approach, his mannerisms convey: I am not asking you to trust me to see into your soul, or to feel your pain, or bring you hope and fuzzy change. I will bring you concrete, measurable, profitable change — the kind you can authentically take stock of, and even measure in your family's bank account.
Romney, who this week watched Obama's 2008 convention speech again, said the lofty, theatrical address loaded with promises never kept provides the perfect device for juxtaposing his leadership style with the president's.
When they take the podium in Tampa this week during the Republican National Convention, both Romney and his running mate, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plan to explicitly deconstruct the promises Obama made four years ago in front of the Greek columns on stage in Denver.
"I haven't finished my speech yet, so I'm in the very early process of my speech, but most of what I'm speaking about is the great distinction between the course I would take and the course the president would take," he said.
"I happen to know that he will deliver an eloquent speech (at the Democratic National Convention next week in Charlotte, N.C.). I haven't seen it, but I know it will be eloquent. I know it will have grand promises. What I hope people do is remember what he said in Denver, and look to the promises there and compare that with the record, and they will say he promised one thing and did entirely different things."
Romney's point: You had love, you had hero worship, you had emotion. How did that work out?
What is most striking in his governing plans is the corporate, metrics-driven approach he feels can be applied to the federal government.
"It is my practice to meet with people that share responsibility for some type of enterprise and to establish very clear goals and objectives, so they know what they're to accomplish."
He would take a hands-on, CEO approach to the job. "I likewise do not like having a solution presented to me for approval. Instead, I'd much rather dig into the issue myself and hear alternative viewpoints on the issue and be able to reach a decision." That sounds very similar to Obama's decisionmaking preference — and one that White House veterans say is virtually impossible to implement because of the dizzying number of decisions a president makes each day.
Yet for all of his emphasis on rolling up his sleeves in decisionmaking, Romney said his biggest struggle is organization. He called it his "flat side," and said, "Tom Stemberg of Staples uses that term" to describe a person's weaknesses.
"I think one of the things I don't do terribly well is to be highly organized and follow a calendar precisely," he said, noting this helps explain why Beth Meyers, his top aide, is so invaluable in his life.
So he will delegate, as needed, to a team very heavy on private-sector experience. "Having people who have actually run things in the private sector or who have been actively involved in the private sector will be of real interest to me," he said.
Romney said that one of his challenges would be not knowing "all the personalities there as I might. I don't know each of the senators, particularly on the other side of the aisle. I don't know all the congressmen and women, and one of the advantages of having Paul Ryan as part of the team is he does know those people well."
This is where political experience will come into play as he fills out his administration.
"There may also be people who have public experience, Washington experience, who might be able to navigate the waters in a way that an all-private-sector team would not be able to do," Romney said.