Published May 22, 2012
“So to repeat, this is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about.”
-- President Obama at a press conference in Chicago when asked about the misgivings of his fellow Democrats over attack ads his campaign is running against Republican Mitt Romney’s work as the CEO of private equity firm Bain Capital.
President Obama mounted a vigorous defense of his campaign’s spring offensive against Republican Mitt Romney’s record as the CEO of Bain Capital, a Boston-based firm that specializes in trying to turn around failing companies.
Obama argued at a press conference in Chicago that his escalating attacks on Romney, whom the campaign has dubbed a “vampire” for making profits as workers were being laid off, are not petty politics but part of a larger debate about economic fairness.
That’s no doubt true. The relevant question is whether that can work.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus quipped over the weekend in Michigan that Obama was running a “Seinfeld campaign,” saying, “It’s the campaign about nothing.” But in Chicago, Obama again laid out what his re-election bid is all about: tearing down the wealthy and powerful individuals whom the president says take advantage of the little people.
It’s very much a return to the pre-Clinton era of the Democratic Party and its New Deal roots. It is certainly no change for Obama.
Recall that in the heaviest fighting of the 2008 Democratic primaries, Obama launched very similar attacks against Hillary Clinton over her family’s wealth and how she and her husband amassed it. Obama’s campaign and a sympathetic press corps hounded the Clintons for more disclosures and suggestions that the post-presidency fortune made by Bill Clinton was ill-gotten.
The argument then, as it is now against Romney, was that the Clintons had gamed the system to profit at the expense of others. And since Obama was running a campaign centered on a repudiation of Clintonian centrism for the party, it was a perfect fit. As Hillary Clinton clawed her way back into contention, Obama escalated the attacks on her wealth and in doing so reminded Democrats of their previous misgivings about Bubba, whom the party’s base always found a little too cozy with rich dudes.
She wanted subsidies for private health insurance, he wanted government insurance. She wanted free trade, he wanted trade restrictions. She was friendly with management, he was all for labor.
Obama carried the message into the general election less effectively. The swipes on McCain’s wealth and privilege played poorly as did the overall argument about the need to “spread the wealth around.”
But then, the luckiest moment in the political life of a very lucky politician turned it all around. The Panic of 2008 struck and unleashed a frenzy of anti-Wall Street fury as middle-class voters saw their 401(k)s immolated because of absurd speculation abetted by politicians in Washington, D.C.
The panic made Obama’s argument for him and, along with McCain’s botched response, delivered the election to the unlikeliest victor in the modern political era. So, Obama can hardly be blamed for sticking with the same argument that has propelled him to such success.
Obama clearly expected all along that he would be facing Romney in this fight. Though Democrats expected the Republican process to be longer and bitterer, the expectation was always that Romney would emerge.
When Obama launched his fall offensive starting with a speech to autoworkers in Detroit, he laid out his case against rich dudes like Romney. Obama called for more government protections and higher taxes in a series of campaign speeches, culminating in a pilgrimage to Osawatomie, Kan., site of Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “new nationalism” speech that launched the former Republican’s Progressive Party candidacy.
Rather than tacking to the center, as many expected, Obama moved left and started preparing for an intense struggle defined by class conflict and the abiding belief that dominated in the pre-Clinton Democratic Party that great wealth is usually the result of great exploitation.
But even before Obama started his re-election campaign in earnest, his administration almost always adhered to his central belief in the need to bring the wealthy down a few pegs. There is almost no problem that the president has not sought to address with a proposal to increase taxes on top earners.
Obama moderated some of his policies, at first out of deep concerns among his economic advisers that the pursuit of a “leveling” could send the economy back into freefall and later because of growing resistance inside the Senate Democratic Caucus.
But now, with the economy bad but not spiraling and freed from the constraints of actually having to pass legislation, Obama has returned to his original argument and promises a second term in which he picks up Roosevelt’s progressive cause.
This, like almost everything Team Obama does, is massively complicated. Campaigns are usually about simple ideas expressed forcefully. Obama seems more to be running a kind of Gingrichian educational program on American economic history.
But then there are the attack ads, just like the ones the pro-Gingrich political action committee launched against Romney.
And like they did for Gingrich, those attack ads slice through the professorial word clouds and reveal the central argument of Obama’s campaign. To make a good ad, you can’t just put up plumes of words and historical arguments, you have to evoke feelings. Calling somebody a vampire or a vulture is not about gradient income disparity, it’s about tapping into anger at the rich.
Obama might have preferred to wait to reduce the central argument of his campaign into a 2-minute attack on Romney’s capitalistic tendencies. But Romney entered the general election in much better condition than expected and Obama felt obliged to start his bombardment early and, more dangerously, maintain it.
Today’s Washington Post/ABC News poll tells the tale: 21 percent of voters find Romney’s career as a turnaround artist attractive, 21 percent found it a turnoff and 56 percent said it wasn’t a major factor. If Obama wants to win, he’s got drive that 56 percent way, way down.
But here’s the problem: Romney and Bain were widely seen as very good at what they did, not plunderers but responsible corporate citizens. The harder Obama leans on prosecuting private equity, the more Democrats will feel obliged to talk about the necessity of such firms.
Without the Panic of 2008 to boost his argument, Obama may find himself looking too liberal for the liking of moderate suburbanites. In trying to make the election a referendum on Romney’s business practices, Obama may turn the race into one about his own economic views.
The Day in Quotes
“Here they are plucking sound bites out of that interview to manipulate them in a cynical manner, to use them for their own purposes ... I'm very upset that I'm being used by the GOP this way.”
-- Mayor Cory Booker on Newark, N.J. in an interview with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC about his comments Sunday that he found President Obama’s attack ads against Mitt Romney’s career “nauseating.”
"In this particular instance, he was just wrong.”
-- David Axelrod, senior political adviser to President Obama, in an interview with Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC about Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s criticism of the Obama campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s career.
“I’ve always thought in this state, close elections, presidential elections, it means you probably have to win with at least 53 percent of the vote to account for fraud. One or two points, potentially.”
-- Gov. Scott Walker, R-Wisc., in an interview with Stephen F. Hayes of the Weekly Standard.
“What the federal government did that got our Irish up is define parameters as to how to administer and the motives that should direct our ministry. That is the character, the tone of these straightjacket conditions.”
-- Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, in an interview with FOX News about the lawsuits filed by his archdiocese and 42 other Catholic institutions, including the Archdiocese of Washington and the University of Notre Dame, against the Obama administration over a rule requiring Catholic groups to provide insurance policies that cover contraceptives, abortifacients and sterilizations.
-- The value of a new government contract for public relations firm Porter Novelli to extol President Obama’s 2010 health law.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.