POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 8, 2012
WASHINGTON >> The complex and fraught politics of wealth and class, undercurrents all along in the race between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, are surfacing in increasingly visible ways in the presidential campaign, presenting big risks and opportunities to both sides.
The contrasting images of the week could hardly have been more evocative.
There was Obama on Thursday at a carefully scouted location, the Kozy Corners diner in Oak Harbor, Ohio, downing a burger and fries and chatting with a group of working-class voters about pinochle and trips to Disney World. The next day, as he continued a campaign swing, he reminisced about a Greyhound-and-train trip he took around the country with his grandmother when he was 11, staying at a Howard Johnson and getting a thrill from leaping into the motel pool and fetching ice from the ice machine.
And there was Mitt Romney on Thursday, roaring across Lake Winnipesaukee on a powerboat large enough to hold two dozen members of his family who had gathered for a weeklong vacation at his estate-size compound in New Hampshire. On Sunday, Romney will raise money among wealthy Republicans in the Hamptons, with his final stop a $75,000-per-couple dinner at the home of David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who with his brother Charles has been among the leading financial patrons of the conservative movement.
It was a vivid manifestation of calculations made by both camps.
Obama and his allies are testing the proposition that they can avoid tripping over the line into a full-tilt attack on the wealthy and still make an aggressive case that Romney’s success came at the expense of U.S. workers and that the Republican Party is doing the bidding of its wealthy benefactors.
Romney’s bet is that with the economy failing to gain steam and Americans deeply concerned that the nation is on the wrong track, voters will not really care if he jets across a lake on a water scooter during his vacation and once had a Swiss bank account as long as he can credibly promise to spur job creation and economic growth. Implicit and explicit efforts by the president and his inner circle to advance the argument that Romney is an out of touch and rapacious capitalist, in the Romney team’s view, will be seen by voters as a transparent and hypocritical attempt by a group of Democrats, millionaires themselves, to divert attention from Obama’s failure to preside over more job creation.
“I don’t think what they’re talking about is relevant to people’s lives,” said Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Romney’s campaign. “This race is about the economy and Barack Obama’s responsibility for the economy.”
Presidential campaigns are never just about policies or even personalities. They tend to turn as much as anything on values, and the values in this case go to central questions about the psyche of the U.S. electorate in 2012.
In an era of populist backlashes against the 1 percent and increased concern about the economic and social ramifications of income inequality, will the long-held assumption that the United States is an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success hold true? At a time when individual billionaires and moneyed interests can play an outsize and often-shadowy role in shaping politics and policy, do political leaders have less incentive to put the needs of the poor and the middle class ahead of the agendas of their benefactors?
Those questions provide a particular opportunity for Obama, who is eager to raise the stakes in the election and make it something more than a march through four more months of unemployment and job creation reports.
Without explicitly invoking Romney’s wealth as a reason to oppose him, Democrats have sought to portray him as the embodiment of a kind of capitalism that works only for the mega-rich.
“Mitt Romney made over $100 million by shutting down our plant and devastated our lives,” a worker from a factory closed by Bain Capital, Romney’s private equity firm, says in an advertisement by Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super PAC.
That leaves Obama free to make the more elevated pitch that his policies would give a fair shot to the middle class, while suggesting that Romney would put the nation on a path back to the policies that brought about widening inequality, stagnant wages and corporate malfeasance.
“The viability of the middle class is not a class issue,” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s senior adviser. “It’s an American issue.”
Polling suggests that the Bain-based attacks on Romney are filtering through to voters in swing states. But wealth, class and politics are a combustible mix that can blow up in unpredictable ways, and Obama is not without his vulnerabilities on that score.
Like Romney, he has spent a good part of the campaign prospecting for donations among the 1 percent, rubbing shoulders with Anna Wintour and George Clooney and exhorting his wealthiest backers to give more.
Although he canceled plans to spend time on Martha’s Vineyard this summer and is emphasizing his real-guy side on the campaign trail, he has had troubles connecting with the white working-class voters who are likely to decide the election.
The question of how hard to press the wealth-and-class argument has created splits within the Democratic Party; it was only weeks ago that Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark, N.J., said the Bain-centered attacks on Romney were as “nauseating” as attacks on Obama for his association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his former pastor.
Most of all, even Obama’s inner circle seems cognizant of the risks of making wealth an issue. Asked whether Obama’s emphasis on fairness for the middle class and his contrast with Romney pushed that line, Axelrod replied: “It is not right to say that to work for, and hope for and fight for some basic economic security means that you resent people who’ve done very, very well.”
Romney even invoked the aspiration defense when asked about his vacation Friday. “I hope that more Americans are able to take vacations,” he told reporters after criticizing Obama’s record on job-creation. “And if I’m president of the United States, I’m going to work very hard to make sure we have good jobs for all Americans who want good jobs — and, as part of a good job, the capacity to take a vacation every now and then with their loved ones.”
But Romney faces the challenge of appealing to the middle class as head of a party that is increasingly reliant on wealthy interests that are powering super PACs and other outside groups advertising heavily on behalf of Republicans.
His stewardship of Bain brought populist-themed attacks from within his own party during the primary season. His own words — challenging a rival to a $10,000 bet, citing friendships with NASCAR owners, casually mentioning his ownership of “a couple of Cadillacs” and asserting that “corporations are people” — have given Democrats ample fodder to portray him as detached from the anxieties of middle-class life. In a New York Times/CBS News poll in April, 34 percent of respondents said Romney was someone they could relate to; the figure for Obama was 47 percent.
“Being rich is not a problem,” said Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant who helped Sen. Edward M. Kennedy defeat Romney in their 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts. “Being rich and out of touch is a problem.”
Romney’s campaign has pushed back hard against some of the wealth-themed attacks, which have included assertions that at Bain he enriched himself by promoting the outsourcing of U.S. jobs. Increasingly the Romney campaign is turning Obama’s attacks back on him by suggesting that the president is in denial about his record and out of touch with the economic strains felt by most Americans.
“They just can’t come to grips with the reality of what’s happening out there and the president’s responsibility for it,” Stevens said.
But for the most part, Romney has tried to refocus attention on the economy and avoid tussles that detract from his central message that Obama has failed.
Some Republicans say his strategy amounts to a low-risk, run-out-the-clock approach that could give Democrats more room to define him on their terms.
“It just seems there’s been a hole in Romney’s biography that invites this stuff,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist who last worked on the presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
“It invites a shorthand: He’s the fat cat from the Monopoly board who has stacks of cash and doesn’t care about someone like me,” he said. “How effective it will be, I don’t know. But my suspicion is it probably works because the Obama people are pretty smart and there’s got to be a reason they’re doing it.”