Harold Meyerson’s WaPo op-ed, “Obama vs. Romney: Who will blue-collar Americans hate less?” raises what may prove to be the most important strategic consideration of 2012. Meyerson sees both Romney and Obama hobbled with elitist images that will be very difficult for either candidate to shake:
…A Romney-Obama contest would pit the very personification of the two elites that generations of Americans have been brought up to loathe: the paper-shuffling, unfeeling banker, utterly out of touch with most Americans’ concerns, and who comes from inherited wealth to boot; and the cool, academic social engineer who is culturally estranged from the white working class and isn’t opposed to governments helping racial minorities.
Meyerson limns Romney’s image with devastating accuracy
Romney is the model of everything in modern American capitalism that makes people pine for the kinder, gentler capitalism that his father personified. As the head of American Motors, George Romney, Mitt’s pop, made cars. Mitt makes deals. As Michael Tomasky noted this week, George Romney refused a bonus of $100,000 after American Motors had a good year in 1960, saying that no top executive needed to make more than his $225,000 annual salary ($1.4 million today). Romney the lesser has a fortune estimated in the hundreds of millions for his work in private equity, extracting vast amounts of money from the firms — successful and not — that Bain Capital took over. The younger gets all manner of tax breaks that his father never could, apparently availing himself of the special rate for private equity and hedge fund managers that, he admits, has brought his rate down to around 15 percent.
Worse yet, Romney comes off as a walking, talking compendium of upper-class cluelessness. His offer of a $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, his dismissal of his yearly speaker fees (around $370,000) as pocket money, his equation of corporations and people — these and other off-the-gold-cufflink comments depict a guy whose points of intersection with the lives of most Americans are few and far between. A rich kid who became a bean counter: Could anything be worse?
But Obama’s image in blue collar America is also problematic:
In the demonology of the American right, however, there surely is something worse: a liberal, cultural elitist who sees — from the ivory tower — the mission of government as catering to (lazy) minorities…Barack Obama seems sent by central casting to embody the target of neo-classic, racist right populism. Think of George Wallace’s attacks on not only minorities but also on their enablers — “pointy-head bureaucrats,” professors and elitist journalists…who had no understanding of or sympathy for the white working class…
In his own way, Obama has as little of the common touch as Romney. In the faux populism of the right, his lack of affinity for certain blue-collar pleasures (He can’t bowl! He doesn’t hunt!), his concern for climate change and other supposed abstractions, are all depicted as signs of contempt for blue-collar lives. Add Rick Santorum’s attack on Obama’s remark that it would be a good thing if every American went to college — a comment, Santorum said, that reeked of hubris and elitism by denigrating workers — to Gingrich’s labeling of Obama as the food-stamp president, and it’s abundantly apparent how the right will go after Obama this fall.
Meyerson notes that “The white working class may be a shrinking segment of the American electorate, but it’s still massive ‘ and “…these voters have moved steadily into the Republican column.” On a more optimistic note, Meyerson observes, “But with Romney as Obama’s opponent, the surge of blue-collar whites into Republican ranks may be smaller this year than GOP strategists have anticipated.” Meyerson concludes that 2012 seems ripe for a third party challenge “on the populist right,” more likely a Gingrich or Santorum than Paul.
Dems can hope that Meyerson has overstated the problems with Obama’s image among white blue collar voters. But the wise course would be to work on improving it.