By Amie Parnes - 03/01/12 10:30 AM EST
President Obama is increasingly playing up his working-class roots in a bid to appeal to blue-collar voters, particularly in the swing-state-heavy Midwest.
Republicans say the casting call is a stretch for the Harvard-educated Obama, who was once a community organizer but is now a best-selling author and millionaire squarely in the “1 percent” category, a point he frequently acknowledges.
In recent weeks, at both fundraising events and even sprinkled in official White House events, both the president and the first lady have repeatedly described their family’s average-Joe struggles.
Obama has shared the difficulties of paying off his student loans and his empathy for families with tight household budgets. “Trust me,” he told a crowd of governors at the White House on Monday, “I know something about dealing with tight budgets.”
When he visited the University of Miami last week, Obama confessed that he once purchased an old-beater of a car for $500. And, on Tuesday, speaking before the United Auto Workers convention, the president reminded the auto workers that he got his start toiling in the shadows of shuttered steel mills in his community organizer days.
“I got my start standing with working folks who’d lost their jobs, folks who had lost their hope because the steel plants had closed down,” Obama said Tuesday. “I didn’t like the idea that they didn’t have anybody fighting for them. The same reason I got into this business is the same reason I’m here today.”
At the same time, in campaign speeches around the country, Michelle Obama has joined in by mentioning her blue-collar father — who worked at a water plant — and the “little-bitty apartment” she grew up in. She tells audiences that her husband knows what it’s like to be raised by a single mother who struggled to put herself through school and pay the bills, and a grandmother who took the bus to get to her job at the bank.
“So believe me, Barack knows what it means when a family struggles,” the first lady has repeated in appearances from Los Angeles to Louisville.
Republicans say the White House strategy isn’t based in reality.
They point to Obama’s fundraisers, where he’s been hobnobbing with the likes of actress Eva Longoria and George Clooney and dozens of millionaires as proof. On Thursday evening, Obama is set to attend four more high-dollar affairs for his campaign, bringing his total number of fundraisers to 100.
“President Obama failed in his promise to be an agent of hope and change and now he’s promising to be a man of the working class,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary at the Republican National Committee. “The problem is when you combine his admission with his 100 fundraisers with the rich and famous, it’s pretty easy to see right through it.”
An aide for Romney said Obama hasn’t helped the middle class, but “destroyed” it.
But Democratic strategists argue the tack by Team Obama is a good one — especially when he’s up against Romney.
“Assuming Mitt Romney ultimately wins the Republican nomination, this election is shaping up to be a fight between blue collar and blue blood,” said David Meadvin, the president of Inkwell Strategies, which specializes in strategic communication.
Meadvin said that while no one would mistake Obama for working class, “the president can speak to working class struggles personally.
“No one should penalize Romney for his wealth, but the years Obama spent as part of the working and middle class gives him an authenticity on economic issues that Romney can’t match,” he said.
Jamal Simmons, another Democratic strategist said that Obama can “regain some ground he’s lost” since the recession. “I’m sure the president and the campaign sees the weakness that Mitt Romney has with voters and I’m sure they’re looking to exploit that.”
An Obama campaign official said the president has a long-standing belief that he’s been pushing well before his White House bid, in restoring the middle class.
“This is a common thread that’s been there throughout his career in public service,” the official said.
But Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor at Northwestern University, said it may be a hard sell for Obama.
Sweet said the tack works well for an unknown candidate but not for the president.
“The Obama image is already out there,” he said. “I’m just not sure there’s a whole lot of added value. He’s going to have to run on his record and his ideas of where we go from here.”