Published July 16, 2012
“And we're now starting to get in the campaign swing. And I tell people, ‘This campaign's still about hope.’ If somebody asks me, it's still about change.”
-- President Obama in an interview with CBS News.
With the news cycles turning more slowly these days and the election drawing near, the political world has devoted itself utterly to soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s business background and wealth.
After months of good luck and a breeze at his back, Romney is now facing the withering attacks of the president, the press and even some of his fellow Republicans.
This is the hinge moment in President Obama’s long war of attrition against Romney. Obama has already spent $100 million on television advertisements, most of them heavy-handed attacks on Romney’s character.
His campaign is standing by an accusation that Romney could be a criminal because of securities regulatory filings a decade ago, and the repeated demands that Romney divulge his tax records dating back to the Clinton years are drawing out more and more criticism of the quarter-billionaire former CEO.
But having gone so far over the top with the attacks so early and so often, Obama had darned well better destroy Romney right now, or the president can kiss re-election goodbye.
Given the state of the economy, his own unpopularity, the unpopularity of his key policy provisions and a strictly small-ball approach to a second-term agenda, Obama needs to wipe Romney out now, because if the Republican makes it out of mid-summer alive, the president will have a very unhappy fall.
Obama is hoping that by Oct. 3, when the two men meet for their first of three debates, Romney will be a toxic asset for Republicans – that Romney’s success as a businessman prior to becoming an Olympic organizer for the 2002 Salt Lake City games and his term as Massachusetts governor will be considered a negative attribute.
But unlike the similar effort against Sen. John Kerry and his military service in 2004, these attacks aimed at turning a positive into a negative have come directly from the president and his campaign. The failure of Democrats to embrace outside groups and political action committees, despite the president’s urging, has left Obama holding the flamethrower.
Democrats say that Obama will make a pivot to positivism and progress by the time he arrives on stage at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte in September and will close on an uplifting note for the nation.
But right now, despite lackluster fundraising, Obama still retains a cash advantage because he faced no primary opposition. He has the bully pulpit of the presidency and Romney is still scrambling to build an effective organization.
Though it risks his brand and drives up negative views of the once very popular president, Obama must believe that not only does he have no choice but to be his own Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but also that he has time to recover.
But that depends on Obama being successful in killing Romney’s chances now. Having started on a negative note and stayed there for four months, would Obama really be able to shift back to happy talk? Not likely.
Romney’s greatest vulnerability right now is on his taxes. The business about in which year Romney ceded effective control of his former firm is chicken feed. Romney is now in a box on his taxes. He says he will eventually meet the standard set by John McCain in 2008 and release two years’ worth. Obama, who had released eight years’ worth when he ran that year, says not good enough.
It’s puzzling that Romney didn’t dump more documents back in February when he was pushed to offer up a years’ worth plus an estimate for his 2011 tax bill. It’s also puzzling that having faced identical attacks from all of the Not Romneys in the primaries, he was not better prepared to rebut the attacks from Obama.
The press may eventually lose interest with the story, but Romney will get another round of coverage about his wealth and how he protects it from the IRS when he eventually comes out with his tax bill. Doing that closer to the election seems worse, not better.
Wrong-footed as Romney may have been on this subject, he may yet make it out alive. Another round of tax return releases may come sooner rather than later and Romney can chalk up a couple of rough weeks and move on – perhaps to the unveiling of his running mate.
So far, the attacks haven’t really stuck. Romney remains tied in the polls with Obama and negative perceptions of the candidates are basically holding steady. As Romney gets more famous, more people like him and dislike him, but there’s been no change in the gap between those two numbers.
Given the president’s straitened circumstances, he may believe that an intensely negative campaign is the only way to go. But at a certain point, if Romney survives these weeks, Obama won’t be able to continue harping on SEC filings and tax returns.
Given a worsening economy and frustration with political dysfunction, personal attacks from the president will not wear very well. For the attacks to be worth the damage they do to Obama’s brand, they need to be more potent than this. Obama believes he can take small things and make them seem large in 30 weeks of a sustained assault.
But Peggy Lee sang, “Is that all there is?”
The Day in Quotes
“…if I was in his shoes I’d be making the same argument.”
-- President Obama in an interview with CBS News on Republican Mitt Romney’s attacks on Obama’s handling of the economy.
"As Mitt Romney said once to his own Republican colleagues: Stop whining. I give him his own advice. Stop whining. If you want to claim Bain Capital as your calling card to the White House, then defend what happened to Bain Capital."
-- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff, on “This Week.”
“Remember who’s up for grabs in this election: independent voters. They were drawn to Obama in 2008 because he was going to change politics and raise and elevate the political discourse. This is gutter politics of the worst Chicago sort.”
-- Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W Bush, on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”
“No. We will not apologize. Mr. Romney claims he's Mr. Fix-it for the economy because of his business experience, so I think voters entirely legitimately want to know what is exactly his business experience."
-- President Obama in an interview with WAVY, the NBC affiliate in Hampton Roads, Va., about allegations from his campaign that Mitt Romney may be a criminal.
“[Mitt Romney] should release the tax returns tomorrow. It's crazy. You've got to release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns.”
-- William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, on “FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace.”
“If we can’t get a good deal, a balanced deal that calls on the wealthy to pay their fair share, then I will absolutely continue this debate into 2013.”
-- Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., head of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, in remarks to be delivered today as provided to the Washington Post. Murray will call for allowing tax rates to rise for all payers of federal income tax if Republicans don’t agree to higher rates for those earning more than $200,000.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET at http:live.foxnews.com.