Americans have a dim view of the financial sector, but they're even more skeptical of the government the president heads.
Last week, Barack Obama's super PAC released its latest ad framing Mitt Romney as a de-industrial profiteer. A working man stands outside a vacant plant and says, "Romney and Bain Capital shut this place down. They shut down entire livelihoods."
Meanwhile, reports seemed to affirm Obama's strategy. "Obama's attacks on Romney's Bain Capital past may be paying off," read a Saturday Daily News headline. We still don't know if that's actually true. But this is one executive position where Wall Street-like experience doesn't help. Americans' view of high finance is at a historic low. Most Americans feel stuck in the recession. And Romney campaigns as the businessman who can restore America's fortune, despite disdain for the industry that made his fortune.
Romney would be, if elected, the first financier president. He would also be among the wealthiest. Presidents are almost always rich men. But few presidents have been fabulously rich in their own right. If Romney wins, he would rank as one of two wealthiest presidents since the colonial era, perhaps exceeded by only George Washington.
Of course, the country chose a privileged son to lead it out of the Great Depression. But Franklin Roosevelt's wealth did not derive from the same financial industry stained by the crash. So Romney presents an interesting test of economic populism in American life: Voters will turn against incumbents in hard times. But will some swing voters refuse to turn to an alternative who embodies the class that brought the economy to the brink?
DEBATING ROMNEY'S BUSINESS
Romney presents himself as the businessman who can turn America around. Therefore, naturally, both sides will fight until Election Day to define Romney's business. It's "job creator" versus "job destroyer."
Democrats have the harder task. A survey spurred reports that the Bain strategy was "paying off." PurplePoll found Americans believe private equity firms "hurt" workers more than they "help" the economy by a 47 to 38 percent margin -- and independent voters shared the same view.
But Romney has not paid for that image. Fifty-eight percent of independents say Romney has the "right kind of business experience to reduce the unemployment rate and improve the economy," according to a CNN poll. Only 17 percent of voters overall, in a Fox News poll, term Romney's work at Bain a "bad thing."
Romney the financier is vulnerable. Two-thirds of Americans believe Romney would "do more" than Obama "to advance the economic interests of wealthy Americans," according to an ABC News-Washington Post poll.
But Romney can lose the compassion race and still win the election. Democrats are usually seen as more sympathetic -- ask Al Gore or Michael Dukakis how that worked out. It's the size of Romney's empathy gap that could count. The public believes Obama better understands "the problems faced by ordinary Americans" by a 20-percentage point margin, according to the CNN poll.
It's not business, it's personal. Democrats must brand Romney, really the inner man, with the worst image of his business. Making him seem cold is not enough -- in fact, cold can win. The majority of Americans question the cost of political "warmth" today.
Instead, Obama must define Romney as Republicans often define Democrats -- by relentlessly casting Romney as an elitist. If the Bain gambit can work, it can only do so as full-throated populism, by painting Romney as not only a super-rich elitist but also the boss who "fires you" rather than "hires you." So the Bain strategy does not depend on attacking Romney's qualifications but defining him as a man who lacks presidential qualities. It depends less on Romney's fortune than the perception of how he made it.
At first blush, it seems so easy for the left: define Romney as a greedy moneyman, or as "The Man" closing down industrial America.
It's a myth that Americans measure success by money alone. The American paragon is not the rich man but the "self-made man" (or woman). Nearly nine in 10 Americans say they "admire people who get rich by working hard;" only 27 percent say they "admire people who are rich," according to a Pew Research Center poll.
The last president to rival Romney's wealth was this sort of self-made man. Herbert Hoover rose from pushing ore carts in Nevada to developing mines worldwide, amassing some $93 million in today's dollars. Romney's net worth is between $190 and $255 million, though he carries less economic power than Hoover's fortune did in his day. Hoover was also a blacksmith's son. Romney's father was an auto executive and governor. But the younger Romney made his own fortune. The debate is over how and at whose expense.
Romney's job at Bain was to make wealthy investors wealthier. Bain required a $1 million minimum investment to participate. Those funds helped develop success stories like Staples. It often meant downsizing as well. Romney's investors generally profited whether the investment did or not.
At first blush, it seems so easy for the left: define Romney as a greedy moneyman, or as "The Man" closing down industrial America. His persona evokes the worst stereotypes of his party and plutocracy. It's reminiscent of John Kerry. Recall Kerry's Boston Brahmin manner and his reference to "Lambert Field."
Kerry's personal net worth, in 2004, was roughly equivalent to Romney's. But if Kerry's assets were combined his wife's fortune, and he won, Kerry probably would have been the wealthiest president ever. Republicans battered Kerry for it. One conservative group spoofed MasterCard's "priceless" commercial. To violins, the ad catalogued the cost of Kerry's haircut ($75), shirts ($250), yacht ($1 million), and mansions ($30 million). It closed: "Another rich liberal elitist from Massachusetts who claims he's a man of the people...priceless."
Kerry fit the image of the "limousine liberal." Cultural populists had a near-ideal antagonist. Economist populists have the same in Romney. Political attacks stick when they confirm preconceived conceptions. Americans still see Republicans as the party of the rich and have, according to polls, for at least a half-century.
This makes Romney an awkward GOP advocate. For example, he opposes ending the hedge-fund tax loophole. That's par for the Republican course, but the loophole also enriches Romney personally. He earned about $21 million annually, in the past two years, at a tax rate of about 14 and 15 percent.
And there are those words. Obama has his gaffes (e.g., "the private sector is doing fine") but Romney's verbal missteps have repeatedly played into Democratic strategies -- "I like firing people," "I'm also unemployed," "I'm not concerned about the very poor." A new anti-Romney Spanish language ad contrasts these words against the times.
But will populism, even today, sway a famously capitalistic electorate?
TEPID POPULISM AND WALL STREET'S PALL
Americans have a populist streak. Three-quarters of the public believe that "there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies." About six in 10 Americans "disagree" that "corporations generally strike a fair balance between making profits and serving the public interest," according to Pew.
These views have remained steady for decades, however. If this is a populist moment, it's not a matter of shifting perceptions but shifting context. In April, three quarters of Americans told pollsters the nation was "still in a recession." The economy has worsened since.
That has cast a pall over Wall Street. A slim majority value Wall Street's role, but in practice only 36 percent believe it "helps" the economy more than it "hurts." Nearly three quarters of Americans agree that "Wall Street only cares about making money for itself," according to Pew polls. Democrats must brand Romney with that image.
Yet the advocate affects the argument, and that's why Obama struggles to seize this context. The president flirts with populism but he privately presented himself to financial titans as the man between them and the pitchforks.
Obama did win Wall Street reform, albeit reform lite. And Romney vows to repeal the Dodd-Frank law. But Obama cannot easily argue he's firmly on one side of that debate. He was Wall Street's favorite investment in 2008. And although financial-sector employees have donated millions of dollars more to Romney's side this time, Obama remains too close to the Street to make a pure case against it. On the same day he launched an ad attacking Romney's work at Bain, the president was at a top financier's Manhattan home, fundraising at a $35,800-a-head dinner.
Obama is left with the worst of both worlds. Americans see him as too close to Wall Street, while much of Wall Street now sees him as too close to the populists.
Romney may exude high finance. And nearly a third of independent voters, Gallup has found, blame financial institutions for America's economic problems.
But the same poll found that they blame government more, by a two-to-one margin. Obama personifies that government. Likewise, Romney's business record might weaken him in key states like Ohio; the PurplePoll found that views of financial firms were more negative in Ohio than nationwide. But the same survey placed Romney ahead in the state.
Unless the dynamic of 2012 changes, it could come down to the fact that in a contest between men who embody unpopular establishments, only one establishment is actually on the ballot.