President Obama won’t be mentioning Mitt Romney by name on Tuesday night. But the subtext of his State of the Union address will be all about him.
Just hours after Romney is expected to disclose his much-anticipated tax returns, Obama will attempt — in a read-between-the-lines way — to portray Romney as an über-wealthy businessman who is anything but a champion for the middle class.
While Obama has yet to refer to Romney, the surging Newt Gingrich or any candidate in the GOP field specifically by name, he will seek to draw stark contrasts between himself and his potential opponent by continuing to telegraph a message that he is the champion of the middle class and subtly laying down a storyline about his future opponent that promises to be ever-present throughout the campaign.
“Every time he says ‘wealthy few,’ it almost implies ‘investor class’ and Mitt Romney,” said Tobe Berkovitz, a professor of communications at Boston University who specializes in political communications and advertising, adding that it’s an “easy” association.
One way Obama will implicitly highlight Romney in Tuesday’s speech will be in renewing his call for a tax code rewrite to codify what he calls the “Buffett Rule,” named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, to ensure wealthier people pay a higher rate than do the middle class and poor.
Romney has painted himself into a corner in recent weeks, after a series of missteps, and as a result has distanced himself from average Americans.He initially refused to release his income tax returns, said that most of his income comes from investments and suggested that the fees he makes for speeches are “not very much.” As a result, Romney has tried to make his way back to real-world optics.
This weekend, Romney’s son Tagg took a picture of his father and mother throwing a couple of loads of laundry in the wash at a South Carolina hotel and then posted it in Twitter. “Nothing like the glamorous life on the road,” Tagg Romney wrote.
But the perception of Romney as an out-of-touch corporate executive is one that even Romney’s opponents have seized upon, observers say. Berkovitz said Romney’s Republican opponents have “opened the door for Obama and have even helped pull the hinges off.”
On Monday, as Romney campaigned in Florida amid a do-or-die battle with Gingrich, Team Obama continued to launch attacks at the former governor. While Gingrich defeated Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina primary, the Obama missives suggest Romney remains the candidate the White House expects to face in the fall.
In an email to reporters on Monday, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, piled onto the criticism Romney received after losing the South Carolina primary, saying Romney “continues to lose the middle class.”
“On Saturday, he lost every income group except one: those who make more than $200,000 a year,” Messina said in the email. “Given Romney’s proposal to give $146,000 a year to families making more than $1 million but cut middle-class taxes by just $138 a family, his support among the wealthiest is not surprising.
“The bottom line is this: The more voters learn about Romney, the more unfavorably they view him,” Messina said.
But those close to the Romney campaign say Obama’s portrayal of the former governor during the State of the Union and beyond won’t work.
“Obama faked his way through the 2008 campaign as a centrist and I think he governed very much as a hyper-partisan and I think during the 2012 campaign he’ll try and fake his way through the campaign as someone who understands the problems of the middle class,” said one strategist close to the Romney campaign. “But that will be completely at odds with his record. He’s dividing America through class warfare from the very beginning.
“This is going to be a campaign that focuses squarely on ‘Are you better off today than you were four years ago?’ ” the strategist said, and not about superficial labels regarding the candidates.