Mitt Romney delivered a fiery speech today in Pennsylvania in which he attacked Obama for allegedly dissing people who have built businesses — something that has become an overnight GOP talking point.
The attack hinges on Obama’s assertion that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.” By “that," Obama was referring to the American system that has helped enable success. But that didn’t stop Romney from building an extended riff that culminated in this applause line: “President Obama attacks success, and therefore under President Obama we have less success. And I will change that”:
Note the part of Romney’s speech in which he said Obama’s claim was insulting to people who work hard to better themselves in life:
“People who reach to try and lift themselves up — the president will say, `well, you didn’t do that, you couldn’t have gotten to school without the roads that government built for you. And you couldn’t have gone to school without teachers, so you’re not responsible for that success.’”
This is just crazy talk, but there’s an actual policy dispute lurking beneath the surface of it. Romney believes government should do less to help people lift themselves up. He thinks the answer is to get government out of the way, unshackle the free market, and allow it to shower opportunity on everyone. He recently claimed that we don’t need more teachers. Obama thinks government should invest more in education to promote social mobility and invest more in our nation’s infrastructure to help secure the future. Polls suggest Americans agree with Obama's broader vision. But to Romney, any discussion of the role of the broader society in facilitating opportunity is akin to an attack on individual initiative itself. Americans aren’t going to buy such an extreme framing of the issues at play here.
This whole attack is reminiscent of John McCain’s 2008 attack on Obama for having suggested to Joe the Plumber that we should “spread the wealth around.” The McCain campaign was certain they had hit political paydirt with that one. McCain talked about Joe the Plumber in dozens of appearances, apparently confident in the belief that the American people would agree that Obama harbored secret hostility towards private wealth.
Romney is likely to make this new one central to his argument that Obama disdains success and the hard work it takes to build up private businesses. But come on — this just isn’t going to resonate with voter perceptions of the president at all. People who haven’t already accepted the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh fantasy version of Obama just won’t buy the idea that he’s hostile to free enterprise and individual initiative. This is an attack on a version of Obama that doesn’t really exist in the mind of swing voters.
Of course, swing voters very well may conclude in the end that Obama has not been effective enough at bringing about economic success for the country. But they won’t ever buy the idea that this flows from some sort of ideological hostility on Obama’s part towards free enterprise or financial success. This attack may thrill Romney supporters who will think he’s fighting back now, but it’s unlikely to have any impact on the actual judgment swing voters make of Obama’s record.