Obama, Romney see each other as vulnerable to charges of elitism

The race for president may boil down to which candidate is viewed as the bigger snob.

President Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, have begun to circle each other over the charge of elitism, which both see as a threat.  

ADVERTISEMENT
The economy has shown signs of strengthening, but with the national unemployment rate at 8.3 percent and gas approaching $4 a gallon, winning over voters might hinge on showing empathy for their financial difficulties, say Democratic and Republican strategists.

Obama called out Romney by name on Tuesday and poked fun at his use of the word “marvelous” to describe the House Republican budget plan, implying Romney’s vocabulary is lofty if not downright posh.

“And he even called it ‘marvelous,’ which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget,” Obama said before pausing with comic effect. “It’s a word you don’t often hear generally.”

Democrats plan to use gaffes Romney has committed on the campaign trail — most of them caught on video — in television and online ads to argue that he cannot relate to average Americans.

Democrats’ favorites include Romney’s casual offer to bet then-presidential contender Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) $10,000 during a debate dispute over healthcare; his claim during a healthcare speech that “I like being able to fire people”; his remark during a CNN interview that he’s “not concerned about the very poor”; and his revelation that his wife “drives a couple of Cadillacs”.

Romney’s plan to lavishly renovate his family’s $12 million oceanfront home in La Jolla, Calif., gives Democrats more ammunition.

Obama’s "marvelous" quip certainly got the attention of the Romney campaign. 

Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Romney, tweeted out a link to a media report detailing three occasions in which Obama used the word “marvelous.”

And Romney did not mince words after winning GOP primary races in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday.

“It is important to understand one astonishing fact about this election: President Obama thinks he’s doing a good job. No, I’m not kidding. He actually thinks he’s doing a great job.

“It’s enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you what a great job you are doing, well, that might be enough to make you a little out of touch,” Romney shot back.

Obama’s dig, which came during a speech at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel in Washington, D.C., appeared premeditated and part of a broader political strategy.

During an interview that aired Sunday on CBS, Vice President Biden said, “I think Gov. Romney’s a little out of touch.”

“I can’t remember a presidential candidate in the recent past who seems not to understand, by what he says, what ordinary middle-class people are thinking about and are concerned about,” Biden said.

Democratic strategists say the “out of touch” label is one that Obama’s campaign will try to slap on Romney in the fall.

“I think it’s going to be part and parcel of the entire messaging operation. We all know who Mitt Romney is,” said Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist.

Lux said even Republicans know “Romney is the Thurston Howell, III of this campaign" — a reference to the "Millionaire" on the "Gilligan's Island" TV show — that he is out of touch and has no idea how to relate to common people.”

Rick Santorum, who continues to wage a losing battle for the GOP nomination, has tried to draw a clear contrast with Romney by reminding voters, “I don’t come from the elite.”

But Obama could have a harder time making that argument. Democrats acknowledge the president falls short of Bill Clinton when it comes to showing he feels the pain of the working class.

“President Clinton was the most natural and empathetic politician I’ve ever known and our generation will ever know,” said Lux, who worked in the Clinton White House. “Obama obviously is a different guy. He has a lot of empathy but he’s a little cooler in his demeanor. He’s a different kind of person. Each of them has their strengths but very different personalities.”

Clinton defeated former President George H.W. Bush by portraying him as aloof from the economic realities of most voters. Bush committed a damaging mistake when he appeared mesmerized by the grocery story checkout scanner.

Obama struggled to escape the elitist label during the presidential 2008 campaign. He gaffed in 2007 during an appearance at an Iowa farm when he asked: “Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?”

His hometown newspaper, The Chicago Tribute, poked him lightly for having more appeal to professional “wine-track” voters than working-class “beer-track” voters.

Obama stumbled again more than six months later at a fundraiser in San Francisco when he tried to explain anti-immigration sentiment in small Pennsylvania towns.

“It’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Obama said.

Advisers to rival Hillary Clinton, now Obama's secretary of State, milked the comment for weeks to argue that Obama had trouble relating to white working-class voters.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, gained traction briefly by airing a television ad subtly mocking for bring “the biggest celebrity in the world” who refused to expand offshore drilling to reduce gas prices.

Four years later, Romney’s allies are trying to use gas prices to paint Obama as out of touch.

“Any time any American goes to the pump and it costs them $50, $60 or $70 to fill up — he knows the president is out of touch when he says he doesn’t want to build a pipeline,” said a Republican National Committee member close to the Romney campaign. “He’s out of touch on almost every issue that he’s touched.”

Danny Diaz, a GOP strategist who worked for McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, said Romney made that argument Tuesday.

“Gov. Romney is communicating that President Obama’s rhetoric is completely severed from the reality of his policies,” said Diaz. “While the President states he wants to increase employment, his policies punish job creators; while the President says he wants to pay down the debt, his policies have caused it to explode; and while the President claims our nation is more energy independent, his policies have resulted in gas prices skyrocketing.”