When an earthquake hit Washington DC last August, it seemed a freakish event. But in retrospect the damage caused to national symbols such as the Washington Monument seems to have been a portent of the literal collapse of America. The monument will be enshrouded in scaffolding until at least 2014. Even if the cenotaph were in pristine condition, however, tourists might find it rather difficult to see. Washington’s subway system, formerly one of the glories of American public transport, is experiencing breakdowns and deadly derailments as its ageing tracks buckle. Such episodes are not limited to the capital: dismal scenes are being replicated across the country, as bridges collapse and bankrupt states such as California close universities, prisons, hospitals, and libraries.
Welcome to Obamaland. The swagger of the Reagan years, the ebullience of the Clinton era, the insouciance of the Bush presidency have all gone, replaced by saturnine visions of the future. The enthusiasm that carried Barack Obama into the White House has long since dissipated, along with his trillion-dollar stimulus programme, which failed to stimulate anything other than more national debt.
Four years after Obama promised ‘change that you can believe in’, the land of the free and home of the brave has changed. It is a nastier, angrier and more dangerous place. And it may be on the verge of shutting up shop.
America, in other words, is easy pickings for a takeover artist. Enter Willard Mitt Romney, Republican presidential nominee and former head of Bain Capital, ‘one of the world’s leading private, alternative asset management firms’.
The British will have a chance to see Romney at work next week. He’s going to London to tap wealthy American expats for more campaign money. Romney is as intensely relaxed as Peter Mandelson about people getting filthy rich. At Bain Capital he amassed a fortune of more than $250 million, and now owns numerous homes, a stables, and ‘a couple of Cadillacs’, as he described his wife’s fleet of cars. In June, his campaign raised $106 million. Obama pulled in $71 million. In a recent tour through the Hamptons, he collected $50,000 a head at several fundraisers, though he was careful to say, ‘I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about those here. I spend a lot of time worrying about those that are poor and those in the middle class that are finding it hard to make a bright future for themselves.’
Obama and his advisers seem confident that Romney’s financial strength is a political weakness. They think that by bashing Romney for his overseas accounts, his property portfolio and his rich friends, they can portray him as an elitist who is clueless about the woes of the common man. In the past two weeks, the President’s campaign team has stepped up its assault with a series of attack ads focusing on Romney’s time at Bain and his dubious tax returns. Obama insisted on Monday that it was ‘entirely appropriate’ for his side to target Romney’s wealth.
But class envy has never played well in America and the Democratic party itself is home to numerous wealthy donors who are hedge-fund managers, a number of whom are complaining about what they see as Obama’s gratuitous demonisation of the rich.
On the Republican side, the New York financial potentate Stephen Schwarzman has likened Obama’s insistence on tax increases on the wealthy to the second world war: ‘It’s like when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.’ Outrageous overstatement? Absolutely. But it captures the growing feeling among American businessmen that Obama is implacably opposed to free enterprise, and explains why the Chamber of Commerce and other pro-business organisations are pouring vast sums into Romney’s campaign.
Small businessmen are also fed up with Obama’s lofty rhetoric. The National Federation of Independent Businesses expressed irritation this week after Obama told an audience, ‘If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.’ Such talk is anathema to the American free spirit. ‘What a disappointment to hear President Obama’s revealing comments challenging the significance of America’s entrepreneurs,’ said the group’s president.
Romney, for his part, is becoming smarter at batting away the elitist jibes. He has been wearing blue jeans and plaid shirts, playing the wholesome middle-American done good and depicting Obama as an Ivy League intellectual. The Republican campaign machine effectively drew attention to Obama’s ‘negativity’ this week, calling on him to concentrate less on Romney’s record and more on his own.
And that’s Obama’s great problem: his record in office is, as Romney puts it, ‘abysmal’. At the turn of the year, it looked as if the depressed American economy was finally showing signs of recovery. Not any more. Each week brings more miserable news. Reuters reports this week that retail sales fell in June for the third month running. Obama cannot expect to attack Romney’s career without eliciting comments about his own failure to run the business of America.
Obama still has the electoral advantage, in many ways. Whereas the President is well liked by large sections of the American left, Romney, by contrast, lacks a solid base of partisan support. His pragmatic, if gelid, disposition has earned him the ire of both the right and the left. Where the left considers him too conservative, the right worries that he is not conservative enough. As Governor in Massachusetts, Romney devised ‘Romneycare’ — a programme that served as a model for the controversial Obama health care plan — and this has created apoplexy among some conservatives.
But those who see Romney as a ninny, a boob, a weakling, couldn’t be more wrong. His plastic smile, his expediency, his elastic sense of the politically permissible, his eagerness to win friends and influence people: these attributes are precisely why he can win in November.
To be successful, he needs to extricate himself from the ideological straitjacket that his party has tried to stuff him into. Over the past several decades, US elections have been decided by increasingly narrow margins. Last week, the numbers from a Washington Post-ABC News survey indicated that Obama and Romney remain in a dead heat. That is unlikely to change much in coming months. And so the battle comes down to a thin sliver of independent swing voters who will decide the final result.
Romney is supremely well placed to capture them. He doesn’t need to proclaim that Obama is some acid-dropping, hybrid Kenyan-European socialist, as the lunatics of the Tea Party do. On the contrary, Romney must do something more prosaic. He needs to show that the President, who despite his personal popularity suffers from dismal job approval ratings, is a classic man of the left — well-intentioned but incompetent. Romney doesn’t need to espouse anything in particular. He just needs to show up Obama.
That is exactly what he is doing. In an interview the other week with the chat-show host Michael Medved, Romney derided Obama’s cabinet as clueless, and emphasised that he would take a different approach: ‘My cabinet will not be filled with academics and politicians alone. It would be a very different line-up than the President has assembled. His team is almost entirely void of anyone with any experience in the business sector, in the private sector, that understands how the economy works.’
Romney has also attacked Obama’s perceived support of ‘crony capitalism’, saying that the President has a dodgy habit of channelling government money back towards the people and businesses who have supported him polit ically. If Romney can carry on presenting himself as a self-made man who wants to stand up for businesses big and small, and Obama as an agent of more powerful forces in Washington, this will hinder the President’s attempts to rekindle his popularity. It will also appeal to independent voters and Tea Party types who embrace free enterprise but view corporate power, particularly Wall Street, with suspicion.
Writing in the City Journal, the economist Luigi Zingales suggests that ‘only someone very confident of his pro-market credentials can take the risk involved in challenging the power of big business’. As it took a Richard Nixon to go to China, it might take a Mitt Romney to rein in excessive corporate political influence.
Romney would do well to keep his focus on the economy. His efforts to outmanoeuvre Obama on foreign policy have failed. To listen to Romney’s speeches, it sounds as if he would like to go to war simultaneously with Iran and China, plus any other country that his hawkish advisers imagine to be a menace to America. But when it comes to specifics, Romney is struck dumb. His only tactic is to portray Obama as a kind of Jimmy Carter redux, a coward who will not confront America’s foes abroad.
He has not been successful in pressing this case. The killing of Osama bin Laden and the aggressive use of drone strikes in Pakistan have largely insulated the President from the traditional criticism that the Democrats are wimps on national security.
It’s hard to believe, however, that Romney himself believes his spiel about the perils to America represented by China and co. It seems more likely that he does not believe in much beyond his own advancement. He would be well advised, then, to drop the tub-thumping bellicosity.
Perhaps, as president, Romney would lose the hardline guff. His wisest move might be to follow in the footsteps of Bill Clinton and triangulate on almost everything, governing in the middle against the more extreme members of his own party. Whether he plans to do so is one of the mysteries of his exceedingly opaque campaign.
But as the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice shows in his acclaimed new book Rule and Ruin, the shift in the Republican party towards the extreme right began with the defeat of Romney’s father George in the 1968 primary. Since then, moderate Republicans have become an endangered species. If he becomes president, the son would have a chance to avenge the father — and to reorient American politics away from its self-destructive impulses in a way that Obama, a prisoner of hope and change, never could. All along, Romney’s detractors in the Republican party have been warning that he is an oleaginous pretender who will stab the right in the back. Good. If elected, he could become a successful president only by fulfilling their worst fears.
Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at the National Interest.