The Obama campaign's assault on Mitt Romney's private sector career is meant to accomplish two goals: tarnish the cornerstone of the presumptive GOP nominee’s political biography, and play into middle class voters' economic anxieties over the actions of large financial institutions.
The president's re-election team sent notice Monday morning that its new ad, which took aim at Bain Capital's involvement at a Kansas City steel plant, was only the first in a sustained wave of attacks on the company Romney co-founded.
David Karp / AP
President Barack Obama arrives at JFK International Airport May 14 in New York on his way to deliver the commencement address at Barnard College in New York City.
"Most Americans know that, even in the real world, when you bankrupt a company, you don't walk away with millions of dollars for yourself and others while workers are left holding the bag," said Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager for the Obama team, in a conference call Monday morning.
"That's simply wrong, especially if you're using those lessons and values learned from that experience as the central premise of your campaign for president. Romney didn't care about rewarding hard work and responsibility, he didn't care about everyone playing by the same set of rules; he cared about making money for him and his partners at all costs," she said.
The Romney team cried foul in response, accusing the president of diverting attention from the anemic performance of the economy. “We welcome the Obama campaign’s attempt to pivot back to jobs and a discussion of their failed record. Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private sector experience and more jobs as Governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation,” said Andrea Saul, Romney’s press secretary.
Later in the day, the Romney campaign released its own web video touting Steel Dynamics, one of the success stories during Romney's time at Bain, as a countervailing example.
(Bain, in its own statement this afternoon, emphasized its neutrality in the election and decried how its "exemplary 28-year record will be distorted and complex business situations will be portrayed in a simplistic way.")
The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about the new ad which is trying to make Mitt Romney's strength in this economic election a weakness.
Nonetheless, the Obama campaign’s new plan to conduct a sustained assault on Romney’s record represents an effort to turn what’s regarded as one of the Republican’s greatest strengths – his economic expertise – into a liability.
As NBC Politics previously explored, Romney has an advantage versus Obama on the economy, though not by as wide of a margin as his campaign might hope. Moreover, the data in last month’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll suggested that voters didn’t expect the economy to perform much better in a Romney administration vs. a second term from Obama. In short, neutralizing Romney’s advantage on the economy would throw the election to other factors, and Obama holds the advantage on many of those.
But the Obama campaign’s attack also plays into broader themes of fairness and equality on which the president has staked his re-election effort.
"We have to move forward, to the future we imagined in 2008, where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules," he said earlier this month at his campaign launch in Columbus. "That’s the choice in this election, and that’s why I’m running for a second term as president of the United States."
An early April Washington Post/ABC News poll suggested that this message, versus a more generic Republican argument about overregulation, might have more political traction. Fifty-two percent of Americans in that poll said they viewed unfairness in the economy that favors the wealthy as a bigger problem than overregulation, named by 37 percent of Americans as a bigger problem.
That message is necessitated partly by the sluggish growth in employment in recent months; while the economy is improving, the rate at which hiring has improved makes it more difficult for Obama and Democrats downballot to run on the economy.
But the Obama campaign is betting that diminished faith in major institutions – and outright skepticism toward Wall Street and the rest of the financial sector – might be enough to stave off Romney’s attacks, especially if they can link the former buyout guru to the excesses of corporate titans.
Obama himself noted that banks and other financial behemoths hadn’t been “model corporate citizens” in his commencement address Monday at Barnard.
There are plenty of examples toward which Obama and his party can point, and already, some of the party’s candidates have gotten the memo.
Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts who had earned plaudits from liberals for her efforts to rein in Wall Street, seized on news that J.P. Morgan had lost $2 billion in a hedging scheme to call on CEO Jamie Dimon to resign his position as director of the New York Federal Reserve Board.
“There’s been a guerilla war out there in which the largest financial institutions have been doing everything they can to make sure that financial regulations don’t get put in place, and if they do get put in place, that they’re loaded with loopholes, and not very effective,” she said Monday on CNN.
Addressing the Barnard College graduating class, President Obama gave the grads examples of how women helped shape who he is, and gave advice to get involved, lead by example and to persevere.