As the campaign season kicks into gear, multimillionaire Mitt Romney has been trying to justify his record as a venture capitalist while fending off calls to release more of his tax records.
Romney 'too wealthy' to understand US voters
WASHINGTON // With record levels of poverty and unemployment above eight per cent, Barack Obama might be expected to be on the defensive as he seeks a second term as the US president in November.
Instead, as the campaign season kicks into gear, it is his presumptive Republican rival, Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire, who has spent the past weeks trying to justify his record as a venture capitalist, while fending off calls to release more of his tax records.
Mr Romney is the first former head of a private equity firm to be the presidential nominee for either of the two main US parties.
It is his record at Bain Capital that has come under sustained attack from the Obama campaign. It has tried to portray Mr Romney not only as too wealthy to understand the concerns of middle-class people - the key demographic in this election - and as someone who made his money at their expense.
An Obama advert, voted the most memorable of the campaign so far in a Vanderbilt University poll on Monday, has helped drive home the message.
Featuring a slightly off-key Mr Romney singing America the Beautiful, the ad superimposes headlines from newspapers about Bain shipping jobs overseas, as well as suggestions that Mr Romney put his earnings in tax havens.
"Class warfare", say Republicans, who argue that the tactic will fail in a country built on the notion that if you work hard and have a bit of luck, you deserve the riches that come your way.
A Gallup poll released yesterday suggests Republicans might not have to worry: 63 per cent of those surveyed said Mr Romney's business background would help him handle the economy, with only 29 per cent believing the opposite.
Mr Obama is trying to frame the narrative and deflect from his own record, said Jeffrey Weiss, a Washington-based political consultant and veteran of several Republican presidential campaigns.
"I don't think this class warfare narrative is gaining traction," he said. "At the end of the day, it's about how much money are you taking home and do you have a job. That's what it comes down to."
But progressives say Mr Obama is responding to a new reality in a country in which economic inequality has reached unprecedented levels, and there is growing public questioning of the manner in which wealth is acquired. The Gallup poll also showed that Mr Obama was seen as more trustworthy than Mr Romney by an eight per cent margin, and was twice as likeable.
Elizabeth Rose, of the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive policy think tank based in Washington, in part credited the Occupy movement with creating public awareness about inequality in the US, which, she said, has been thrown into stark relief by the contrast between those Mr Romney claims to be speaking for, and himself.
"It used to be that we just assumed that our kids would do better than we are doing economically," she said. "That was the definition of the American dream. Now a lot of people are extremely concerned about that. That's new, that's different, it's not good and it definitely puts a wealthy candidate on the defensive."
Mr Obama and Mr Romney took a short break from their mutual recriminations out of respect for the victims of the Colorado shootings.
Even though the focus has turned somewhat to foreign policy - with Mr Romney due to leave for London, Jerusalem and Warsaw this week - Mr Obama continues to suggest that his opponent is more concerned with tax breaks for the rich than national security.
The Obama campaign is unlikely to let up on that message. With disappointing figures across the board on the economy, the US president has had to take an aggressive approach, said Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.
Mr Romney also "opened himself up" to such scrutiny, said Mr Hess, who has served under four presidents and written books about the US presidency and presidential campaigns.
Presidential candidates are generally wealthy - the one notable exception in recent years being Bill Clinton - but their wealth usually comes either from family fortunes or a long and successful career in politics.
Mr Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, does come from a well-to-do political family. His father served as a governor of Michigan, and as chairman and president of American Motors.
But Mr Hess said this was the first time that a major party nominee for president had touted his business credentials as his main selling point.
Although the Obama campaign's focus on his rival's wealth and the way he obtained much of it was "very, very unusual", and rubbed against the grain of the "America psyche", which does not usually begrudge someone their riches, the strategy might just work, said Mr Hess.
"It has resonance, but it's because of this unique moment we have," he said. "People are very angry, very frustrated and very anxious. So it could conceivably work for this moment."