When Mitt Romney launched his second presidential run, the resurgent left-wing populism of the moment was nowhere in sight. Romney early on emphasized his executive experience, confident that his claim to a deep understanding of the private sector would prove seductive to voters who had grown disillusioned with Obama’s government-oriented solutions to our economic problems.

But a host of factors — persistent unemployment even as corporations continue to rake in huge profits; the rise of Occupy Wall Street; the electorate’s sudden preoccupation with inequality and its anger over lack of Wall Street accountability — cast doubt on whether Romney’s initial calculus should still apply. The question is whether struggling voters in key swing states will view Romney’s corporate past as he’d like, or as the Obama team plans to define it.

Will Romney’s “corporate idealism,” as Benjamin Wallace-Wells dubbed it, and his turnaround whiz kid act, inspire confidence among an electorate which has watched government fail to produce the solution to mass economic suffering? Or will anger at Wall Street rebound in Romney’s direction — will he be perceived as the personification of the sort of Wall Street heartlessness that enriched the “one percent” at the expense of the 99 percent and saddled us with today’s wrecked economy?

Today’s New York Times takes a deep dive into Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital, and it paints a vivid picture of the human costs of the layoffs that occured at companies restructured on his watch. You can expect the Obama team to seize on these revelations to build a case against Romney as a soulless and automaton-like figure with no regard for the human toll of executive decisions. David Plouffe’s declaration that Romney “has no core” was a harbinger of this strategy.

Previous Romney quotes will be pressed into service. There’s his claim that “corporations are people,” his call for the foreclosure market to “bottom out,” his “let Detroit go bankrupt” Op ed, and his assertion that extending the payroll tax cut would amount to a “little Band-Aid.” The Obama team also sees the fact that Romney pays a lower tax rate than many middle class taxpayers as a related but unexplored vulnerability, since tax fairness will be central in 2012.

The argument over the meaning over Romney’s past will go beyond just painting him as a Gordon Gekko-like figure. The broader case against Romney will be rooted in the case that was sketched out in Wallace-Wells’ New York magazine piece: That his career in finance embodied the brand of capitalism that has left us with the shattered economy and broken system we’re living with today. Today’s Times piece makes a similar case, which is why it’s a must-read.

Obama’s advisers believe that resurgent populism, anxiety about inequality, and rising public awareness about Wall Street’s culpability in leaving behind the wreckage we’re now digging through will shape the political environment through yext year. They are hoping Romney’s corporate profile will render him unfit for this political, economic and cultural moment. The race is now on to define that corporate profile in the minds of voters, and how it’s ultimately perceived could be pivotal to the outcome of this election.


Update: Needless to say, the above will also be linked to the policy argument Obama and Romney will have, should Romney be the nominee — the disputes over tax hikes on the rich and tax fairness in general, over Wall Street reform, over government’s proper regulatory role, etc.