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Obama’s Original Sin

That Monday morning was also when Romney unleashed a web video startling in its brazenness. Mockingly titled “Bump in the Road,” it dispatched a diverse parade of unemployed Americans (or actors impersonating them) to a desert, where each in turn plaintively announced in close-up, “I’m an American, not a bump in the road.” Though Romney (wisely) stayed offscreen, the ad cast him in the unlikely role of Tom Joad leading the downtrodden dust-bowl masses to salvation. Hours later, Romney aced that night’s first major GOP presidential debate by again offering himself as an economic savior. His jobs plan? “Keep government in its place” and let “the energy and passion of the American people create a brighter future.”

No one doubts that Romney is a shape-shifter par excellence, whether on abortion, health care, cap and trade, or the Detroit bailout (which he predicted would speed GM and Chrysler to their doom). In his last presidential run, he was caught fabricating both his prowess as a hunter and a nonexistent civil-rights march starring his father and Martin Luther King. But to masquerade as a latter-day FDR is a new high in chutzpah even by his standards. The only examples he can cite as a job creator are his “turnaround” of the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002 and his ability to grow Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded, from “ten employees to hundreds.”

By failing to address populist anger, Obama gave his enemies the opening to co-opt it and turn it against him. Which the tea party did, dishonestly but brilliantly.

The most significant workers he added to the payroll in Salt Lake City were sixteen lobbyists, at a cost of nearly $4 million, to solicit taxpayers’ subsidies—“more federal cash than any previous U.S. Olympics,” according to The Wall Street Journal. That’s hard to square with Romney’s current stand that jobs will bloom across the land if government stops giving any handouts (even to tornado victims, he said in the GOP debate) and lets the free market work its magic. As for his fifteen years in the corporate-buyout business, he was best known for the jobs Bain shredded at the once-profitable companies it took over and then demolished for parts.

It’s a record Romney perennially tries to cover up. It may have cost him his Senate race against Ted Kennedy in 1994. In that campaign, Romney was stalked by a “Truth Squad” of striking workers from a Marion, Indiana, paper plant who had lost jobs, wages, health care, and pensions after Ampad, a Bain subsidiary, took control. Ampad eventually went bankrupt, but Bain walked away with $100 million for its $5 million investment. It was an all-too-typical Romney story, which is why Mike Huckabee could nail him with his memorable 2008 wisecrack: “I want to be a president who reminds you of the guy you work with, not the guy who laid you off.” Stephen Colbert recently topped Huckabee, portraying Romney as a cross between Gordon Gekko and Jack Kevorkian because of the profitable mercy killings of companies in Bain’s care. When Romney was governor, his record was no better. A Northeastern University analysis of his term (2003–6) found that Massachusetts was one of only two states to have no growth in their labor forces. The other was Louisiana, which happened to have an excuse named Katrina.

That Romney thinks he can pass himself off as the working stiff’s savior and Obama as the second coming of the out-of-touch patrician George H.W. Bush of 1992 truly turns reality on its head. Obama’s palling around with Rubinistas may be too much for his administration’s or the American people’s good, but Romney is a bona fide plutocrat whose financial backers include David Koch and whose idea of a joke was to tell a group of out-of-work Floridians on the campaign trail, “I’m also unemployed.” Yet so far, Romney is getting away with it, and the Republican Establishment, smelling a savior, is happy to embrace and embroider his proletarian masquerade. Peggy Noonan recently anointed this well-connected son of a Detroit CEO and Michigan governor a “self-made” financial success. Should the ersatz Horatio Alger end up on a ticket with a right-wing pseudo-populist—Michele Bachmann, unlike Romney, is quite at ease with bashing Wall Street—it’s not inconceivable he could ride a sputtering recovery further than anyone expects.

There’s not much Obama can do to alter the economy by 2012, given the debt-ceiling fight, the long campaign, and nihilistic Capitol Hill antagonists opposed to any government spending that might create jobs and, by extension, help Obama keep his own. But the central question before the nation couldn’t be clearer: Who pays? The taxpayers bailed out the elite; now it’s the elite’s turn to return the favor. Massive cuts to the safety net combined with scant sacrifice from those at the top is wrong ethically and politically. It is, in the truest sense, un-American. Obama knows this, and he hit a welcome note last week when he urged some higher corporate taxes for hedge funds and the like. But his forays in this direction are tentative and sporadic. You have to wonder why he isn’t seizing the moment to articulate and fight for the big picture instead of playing a lose-lose game of rope-a-dope with the Republicans on their budgetary turf.