Obama’s Two-Stage Attack on Romney

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Photo: Charles Krupa/AP

For an election that is supposed to be about a huge ideological choice, President Obama’s campaign has spent an awful lot of time talking about things that don’t have much to do with that choice. First Obama started attacking Mitt Romney for laying off a bunch of workers at Bain Capital. Now he’s extending the theme by assailing Romney’s business career for outsourcing jobs. But of course, whatever the morality of Romney’s business career, it doesn’t really bear upon the central question of what Romney would do as president. You can be a rapacious businessman and still support Keynesianism, or social insurance, or progressive taxation, or universal health care.

I strongly suspect that Obama is currently in the first stage of a two-part assault on Romney. The first is to define his motives and perspective: a rich man who sees the world from the perspective of the CEO suite and blithely assumes what is good for people like himself is good for everybody.

This is the essential predicate for part two, which I would guess (I have no inside information) will dominate the last half of the campaign. Part two is Romney’s fealty to the Bush-era low-tax, anti-regulatory ideology and the radical Paul Ryan plan. The average undecided voter pays little attention to politics and might not understand why a candidate would return to failed Bush-era policies or slash the social safety net in order to clear budgetary headroom for keeping taxes on the rich low. Defining Romney’s business career is a way of making sense of those choices.

Given the shaky state of the economy, Obama’s reelection prospects obviously hinge on discrediting Romney as an alternative, and to portray him as an advocate of unpopular policies with a very bad recent track record. A new poll of Ohio, by PPP, offers a sense of how the election is likely to proceed. Obama leads Romney in the state by three points. Among undecided voters, Obama’s approval rating is an atrocious 9/65. But Romney’s favorability rating is an equally atrocious 9/61. Obama’s task is to persuade undecided voters that, however unhappy they may feel with the state of things, Romney will make it worse.