Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Limits of Wall $treet

Some on the right are concerned that Obama would slam Romney as a denizen of Wall Street and that Romney's wealth would prove a hindrance in the general election. While some worries about Romney's business background are more the product of sympathy for other candidates than anything else, there is an element of real anxiety to them, and they are not completely baseless.

However, there are numerous reasons not to overestimate the potential effectiveness of White House attacks on Romney over Wall Street connections.

Perhaps foremost among them is the White House's own very deep connections to Wall Street. Cabinet figures like Tim Geithner and White House allies like Jon Corzine are the embodiment of Wall Street insiders---they make Mitt Romney look like a secretary at the Merrill Lynch branch office in Fargo, North Dakota. Many of Obama's top advisors come from the world of Wall Street. Any attacks on Romney's Street connections immediately open Obama up to the countercharge of hypocrisy: if Wall Street is so bad, why do you choose to people your administration with Streeters and have Wall Street tycoons as central fund-raisers for your presidential campaign?

Charges of hypocrisy here could be particularly damaging for Obama. Despite a lackluster (to put it mildly) administration, Obama still has a chance of winning reelection in part because of the personal affection that many Americans still have for him. The glow of Obama as a political figure who can rise above petty partisan squabbles has dimmed, but it has not entirely vanished. If Obama becomes painted as just another hypocritical political opportunist, his reelection prospects suffer a considerable blow.

Moreover, attacks upon Romney's wealth would make Obama seem more like Walter Mondale than Bill Clinton. Invective-fueled class warfare might be helpful at the margins, but America is still, despite a decade of trials, an optimistic nation. It would seem out of touch indeed for Obama, not exactly a poor man himself, to be complaining about Romney's wealth when millions of Americans are out of work. The American public would much rather see solutions for the nation's problems instead of complaints about an individual's success.

This suggests another limitation for Obama's potential attacks upon Romney's corporate history. It's true that a number of people were laid off due to the actions of Bain Capital (though many others were also hired due to Bain). The media (and maybe some Republican candidates) will be sure to emphasize the lost jobs and displaced individuals. But millions more have lost their jobs in Obama's economy. The disappointments of the stimulus bill far exceed those of Bain. A comparison of Romney's employment record in the corporate world and as governor of Massachusetts with Obama's is not one that would seem to be in the president's favor at the moment. The president's only hope for reelection is to focus on the future; looking to the past will only emphasize the shortcomings of the administration. Obama may think that his administration's accomplishments may possibly exceed those of Lincoln, but most Americans are a little more pessimistic on that point.

Some rightie activists have suggested that Ted Kennedy's anti-Romney strategy in 1994 offers a devastating blueprint for Obama's 2012 strategy against Romney. This parallel should also not be overstated. Kennedy did hit Romney hard on his record at Bain, but Barack Obama is no Ted Kennedy, and the United States is not Massachusetts. Kennedy's 17-point victory over Romney was a decisive one, but 1994 was the only time Kennedy's reelection margin fell below 20 points. Even with all his Wall Street attacks, Kennedy's margin of victory was over 10 points less than it was in 1988 or 2000. Obama lacks Kennedy's electoral cushion; a 10-point swing would end his presidency.

Moreover, in 2002, Shannon O'Brien, the Democratic nominee for Massachusetts governor, tried replicate Kennedy's tactics, but she was not able to copy his success. A close race with a slim Democratic lead according to most polls ended in a 5-point victory for Romney. It would seem likely that such attacks will be even less effective now.

There are obviously topics in Romney's business background that should be investigated more. But Romney also has a number of years of government and public service upon which to run. Obama may hope that class warfare can distract from the nation's poor economic picture, but there is no reason why Republicans should allow that triumph of rhetoric over reality.

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