I strongly suspect that one of the Obama campaign’s key strategic goals is to fight Mitt Romney to a draw on who can fix the economic crisis. The Obama team would take a win, but a draw may have to do. The battle can then be won on other turf — on who can be trusted to protect middle class interests while reforming entitlements and taxes, and on who has the better vision for the country’s future and role in the world.
Today’s two main political events speak directly to this dynamic. First, the Obama campaign released a very harsh new ad arguing that Romney’s tax plan would raise taxes on the vast majority of Americans to pay for a tax cut cut on millionaires like himself. Second, Romney released a new middle class economic plan.
Romney plan is called: “Mitt Romney’s new plan for a stronger middle class.” It contains ideas we’ve heard before: more access to domestic energy resources; cutting taxes and capping spending; repealing Obamacare. Mark Hopkins at Moody’s Analytics tells me that it is mostly a set of assertions about outcomes Romney wants, rather than a set of policies on how to achieve them.
“There aren’t enough specifics here to evaluate the plan,” Hopkins said ”It’s not clear in most cases what specific policies underlie the assertions of outcomes he wants.”
The more interesting question may be why Romney released a middle class plan today. Romney campaign focus grouping must look pretty bad on whether middle class Americans think he’s on their side. Yesterday’s CBS/NYT poll found a majority of voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and a plurality in Florida, don’t think Romney understands their needs. Majorities believe the opposite about Obama, despite the massive “didn’t build that” attack’s goal of showing how disdainful he is of hard working Americans.
Yet the two candidates are roughly tied on the question of who would do a better job on the economy, which brings me to the larger point here.
Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. But if the Obama camp can persuade swing voters that Romney isn’t the answer to their problems, then perhaps they can neutralize Romney’s natural advantage on the issue — that voters are prepared to grant him the presumption of economic competence as a businessman and generic alternative to disillusionment with Obama.
This is what the assault on Romney’s Bain years, tax returns, and offshore accounts is all about. It’s about getting voters who are willing to accept that Romney possesses know-how on the economy but won’t look out for their interests in fixing it. It’s about creating a framework within which voters can be more easily persuaded that Romney’s policies really would benefit the rich at the expense of the middle class. As Jonathan Chait notes, the revelation that Romney’s tax plan would cut taxes on the rich and pay for it with a middle class tax increase is lethal for Romney because it clarifies this frame.
That’s why Obama’s new ad hits this so hard, pointing out Romney ’s low tax rate on the $20 million he earned in 2010. “Romney’s middle class tax increase: He pays less; you pay more,” it concludes. This is the rawest version yet of the message that Romney’s world view, personal wealth, values and priorities make it perfectly comprehensible that his policies would indeed prioritize the wealthy ’s interests while damaging those of the middle class. If voters can be persuaded of this, it’s Obama’s best chance of hanging on amid a bad economy.