Over the last week the President is making it clear he’s going to go after Mitt Romney’s elite social status as a campaign issue, a gambit that could pay off if played right. We heard it yesterday at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where Obama milked a joke about how Mitt would view the spacious DuPont Hilton ballroom as a “fixer-upper.”
Earlier in the past week the President made a conscious issue out of Republican opposition to renewing the student loan interest rate, framing the debate as a specific attack on Romney, who never needed a loan. Obama did so to great fanfare in a speeches before college audiences in Iowa and North Carolina, both key battleground states. The crowds of students could not have been more responsive, especially when the President pointed out that he and Michelle only paid off their academic debt eight years ago. But he was clearly previewing an attack that has a much broader reach.
The student loan issue will be kept alive by the White House for political reasons, regardless of policy implications. It serves as a rhetorical wedge for the President to hit his presumptive opponent on one of his weakest fronts: His patrician aloofness, life of privilege, and wealth.
“When Michelle and I got married,” the President said in those speeches, “we got poorer together. We added up our assets, and they were zero. We added up the liabilities, and there were a lot of liabilities.” A stark contrast to Romney, the millionaire asset manager.
Hillary Rosen was wrong to talk about Ann Romney never having to work, but the theme is the same: Romney is not capable of sympathizing with the average American because he is not one. Barack Obama is. The White House is on a rhetorical war path, and rightly so.
The deep divide between conservatives and liberals on wealth and equality is very real, and never more important now in a time when income inequality is at an all time high. Conservatives have always been skeptical of egalitarian thinking, dating back to a time when Edmund Burke was warning of the perils of the Egalité of the French Revolution. In a turn of phrase worthy of my old boss Frank Luntz (who flipped the Estate Tax into the Death Tax), we hear Candidate Romney talk of “Punishing success” whenever the President brings up equality or fairness.
Obama countered this argument head on. “In America, we admire success,” he said. “I want everybody to be rich.” But: “America is not just about a few people doing well. America is about giving everybody a chance to do well.”
The narrative is clear. Addressing audiences of college students recently–as they periodically shouted out to him their thousand dollar loan tallies–Obama was justifiably able to say “I’ve been in your shoes.” The other guy has not.
“I didn’t just read about this,” Obama said. “I didn’t just get some talking points.” Like that other guy, the one born with the silver spoon.
“Class warfare” shouts the conservative side. “Fairness” shouts the other. But these concepts have not always belonged to one side or the other, and, as always in politics, they assign their own meanings to the words.
A generation ago, Richard Nixon built a political legacy by championing the Silent Majority, the working man, the hardhats, the people–who like him–made something out of nothing, working their way up, hardscrabble. It’s why veteran journalist Tom Wicker called Nixon “One of Us.” Other, earlier Republicans have been able to connect with the public by talking about the challenges of everyday life. Abraham Lincoln often referred to his family’s finances as “the national debt.” Lincoln led a nation through war while his own budgets were consistently out of balance.
Conservatives may champion “success” and wealth in an Ayn-Randian libertarian sense, but Obama’s student loan attack puts him in the role of the self-made man, the person who worked his way up, in contrast to the one who was given everything and expected “success” as a natural outcome. Mitt Romney thinks he should be president. It’s only fair, after all. “It’s our turn,” as Ann Romney said.
President Obama offered his rebuttal with his personal story. A difficult childhood, a broken home. Struggles for work and education, student loans that burdened his family even as he rose through the ranks as a political leader.
“Hey, check it out. I’m President of the United States,” he told the cheering crowd in Chapel Hill last week.
Winning elections is ultimately about painting contrasts, and Obama is using the student loan issue–as well as the Buffett Rule debate–to do just that. Romney is not one of us, and the President is. Make no mistake, this debate is ideological: “class warfare” to some, on the right, who reject progressive ideals of equality and fairness. The President should continue engaging this argument.
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