CHICAGO — President Obama’s political advisers have long been preparing for a general-election contest against Republican Mitt Romney. What they have seen of the former Massachusetts governor in the past 30 days makes them think he will enter a fall campaign, if he survives a turbulent nomination battle, significantly weakened by self-inflicted wounds and a major strategic mistake.
That assessment in no way changes the view from the sixth floor of the Prudential Building here that the president faces major challenges in his bid for a second term. Continuing economic uncertainties, general unrest among the electorate, frustration with the pace of the recovery and the reluctance of independent voters to embrace the president constitute the stiff head winds that Obama and his team are facing.
The gap between what the president promised and the expectations he created in 2008 and his record of delivering will be at the heart of the Republican argument that he does not deserve a second term.
But the chaotic Republican race, and the way Romney has dealt with vulnerability and adversity, give those guiding the president’s reelection campaign confidence that, when the general-election campaign begins, the president will hold several advantages over the GOP nominee.
What has happened to Romney over the past month has not come as a total surprise to Obama’s advisers. Having long ago combed his record as a businessman and cast his profile against the general mood of the country, they thought he was a candidate with major weaknesses that could make it difficult for him to appeal to independent and swing voters.
At the heart of those perceptions is Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, a private equity firm where he made his fortune. His record there has come under attack in the Republican race, although his advisers say it is a major asset because of the contrast he could draw with the president, who has no real experience in business or with the private economy.
Obama advisers disagree. They argue that, at a time when many Americans see economic and political systems that appear to be stacked against them, Romney’s decision to base his campaign message on his work at a private equity firm could be a major mistake.
What Obama’s advisers say they did not anticipate was the degree to which Romney would compound that vulnerability through missteps.
“These are all self-inflicted,” said one adviser to the president who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the campaign candidly. “He has done as much damage to himself with how he’s handled this as anything his opponents have said about him. That’s why I think he’s made it worse.”
Questions have been raised about his personal finances, highlighted by the tax returns he released this week that show not only enormous wealth and a low effective tax rate but also a Swiss bank account (now closed) and investments in the Cayman Islands. Adding to those are statements Romney has made recently that ordinary Americans might interpret as a sign of insensitivity to their struggles.