Which brings us to the second central argument in Obama’s Columbus speech: “Now we face a choice, Ohio … After a long and spirited primary, Republicans in Congress have found a nominee for president who has promised to rubber-stamp [their] agenda if he gets the chance. Ohio, I tell you what: We cannot give him that chance. Not now. Not with so much at stake. This is not just another election. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and we’ve been through too much to turn back now.”
In talking about a “make-or-break moment,” Obama was trying to raise the stakes in the election—and thereby make the prospect of changing horses seem riskier. And in calling the race a choice, he was explicitly rejecting Romney’s premise that it should purely be a referendum on his leadership. “Every election is a choice election,” says Joel Benenson, Obama’s lead pollster. “The other guy doesn’t want it to be that way. He wants to talk about macroeconomic numbers and try to make a case about how the president has failed you. Our job is continually to illustrate, expose, and contrast the president’s and Romney’s values and economic visions.”
The contrast part is dead simple: that whereas Obama favors a “balanced approach,” replete with “fairness” (raising taxes on the rich) and investment in the nation’s infrastructure and human capital, Romney is just another proponent of the ultra-laissez-faire-ism that caused the financial system to nearly melt down and brought America to its knees. “Our core argument against him,” says Plouffe, “is that he’s gonna wreck the economy for the middle class. He’s gonna go back to the policies that caused the recession.”
Then there is the exposure part, which entails subjecting the Romney record to withering scrutiny. The assault on his time at Bain has already begun, but soon Chicago will train its fire on his tenure in the Massachusetts statehouse. “He made similar promises in 2002 about what he was going to do for Massachusetts based on his experience in the private sector,” says Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter. “ ‘I’ve got all this great experience creating jobs and turning around companies! I’m gonna turn around Massachusetts!’ Well, there’s a reason why he never talks about his Massachusetts record. Because economically, it didn’t work.”
But the Obama indictment of Romney in the economic sphere will extend beyond Bain and the Bay State: It will go to character. It will drive home the idea that Romney is a skillful but self-serving plutocrat whose résumé is replete with self-enrichment but who has never cared an iota about bettering the lives of ordinary people. One tagline that the campaign is considering using—“He’s never been in it for you”—encompasses Bain, Massachusetts, and every Gordon Gekko–meets–Thurston Howell III gaffe he made during the primary season in one crisp linguistic swoop.
“Romney really, actually thinks that if you just take care of the folks at the top, it’ll trickle down to everybody else,” says another Obama operative. “But no one believes that stuff—no one! And once you puncture that, there’s nothing left. He’s not likable. He’s not trustworthy. He’s not on your side. You live in Pittsburgh and you’ve got dirt under your fingernails, who do you want to have a beer with? It ain’t fucking Mitt Romney. You’re like, ‘Shit, I’d rather have a beer with the black guy than him!’ ”
The degree to which Obama’s people see Romney as a walking, talking bull’s-eye is hard to overstate, as is their contempt for his skills as a political performer. The outlier among them in this regard is Jim Messina, the president’s campaign manager—not because he disagrees, but because it’s irrelevant to the plan he is trying to execute. When I ask Messina if Romney is a more formidable foe than McCain, he replies without blinking, “I don’t care.”
It’s another gorgeous May morning in Chicago, and we are sitting in Messina’s office, with its postcard view of Millennium Park below. At 42, Messina is an invisible man compared with Axelrod and Plouffe, though his role in the 2008 campaign, when he served as the latter’s deputy, was nearly as critical. Messina served for years as chief of staff to Montana’s senior senator, Max Baucus, and later as deputy White House chief of staff in Obama’s first two years. He earned a reputation as a very nice guy who would merrily club you with a truncheon if you crossed him. In addition to not caring about Romney’s candidate skills, he doesn’t give a whit about national polling, in which Obama’s numbers are dragged down by his horrific performance in the Deep South and Appalachia—but is obsessed with the president’s standing in the battleground states, where Obama has “a distinct advantage,” he says, “and everybody, including Mitt Romney, knows it.”