For all the attention being paid lately to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s verbal miscues, President Obama made a pretty devastating blunder of his own in a speech in Roanoke, Va., last month when he ad-libbed a riff straight from Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign rhetoric.
Obama made the case for an active government role in the economy, and criticized those individuals who thought their business success was entirely attributable to hard work and smarts. He’s gotten the most scrutiny over his “you didn’t build that” line, but reading the speech with full context, it’s clear that he’s making a case against an unfettered free market while downplaying the individual efforts of entrepreneurs.
It was a declaration of the Warren Doctrine, the viral comments made by the Massachusetts Democrat last year in which she argued that “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” Obama’s tone (and Warren’s) was as significant as the content. Read the remarks in full, and it’s not hard to detect a cavalier dismissal of individual enterprise.
Since then, the Obama campaign has tried to clarify what he said, with the president himself explaining in an advertisement that his remarks were misconstrued and that he’s all for small businesses. It’s clear the president’s team recognizes how politically sensitive his comments were to a public already skeptical of his economic credentials, which is why it quickly cut an ad attempting to defuse the blowback.
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But while the president’s team understands the political risk of sounding unsympathetic to small business, the campaign is going all-in for its messenger, tapping Warren to give a prime-time address on the Wednesday of the convention. It’s the latest sign that the campaign is placing all its bets on drawing sharp contrasts between Romney’s wealth and Obama’s message of fighting for the middle class.
What’s unclear is whether Warren is the ideal surrogate to deliver that red-meat rhetoric in front of a national television audience. She’s lined up behind former President Bill Clinton, who notably praised Romney’s background running Bain Capital and developed close ties to Wall Street during his presidency.
Warren is clearly a hit with the Democratic base, as demonstrated by her record fundraising numbers and rock-star appeal among liberals. But fundraising and base enthusiasm don’t necessarily translate into political support. She’s locked in a neck-and-neck battle with Republican Sen. Scott Brown, but polls show about one-quarter of Obama supporters in Massachusetts are supporting Brown — the highest crossover total seen in any competitive Senate race this cycle. Many of the defectors are working-class Democrats who don’t naturally connect with her personally. As one senior Democratic strategist put it to me, she’s struggling among the Democrats who are “liberal, but don't know it.”
That “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” sentiment goes to the heart of the demographic paradox that has defined the 2012 presidential campaign. Obama is positioning himself as a protector of the working class, even as blue-collar whites are showing historically low support for him. Likewise, Warren’s rhetoric appealing to the working class resonates predominantly with some of the wealthiest liberal Americans, who have donated generously to her campaign. But it’s been a challenge for her to connect with many of the average Joes, in part because her background as an academic and government official. Unlike Romney, Brown has a well-worn reputation for connecting with those folks.
Perhaps Romney will be a much easier foil than Brown on the convention stage. Democrats are confident about using the convention to cast Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat and believe Warren’s background advocating for consumers in her brief role with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau makes her an ideal prosecutor. In a best-case scenario for Democrats, Warren could emerge as a hit among the “Walmart moms,” that oft-cited swing demographic who could play a decisive role in a close election. Several Democratic operatives pointed out that the speech will coincide with the NFL season opener, making it likely the audience would be more female and more in Warren's sweet spot.
But in a worst-case scenario, sounding too strident could risk a Democratic version of Pat Buchanan’s infamous 1992 convention speech, in which he argued there was “a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America.” It was a hit in certain conservative circles, but a total flop with average voters. Democrats scoff at the comparison, even as they have been using similar hard-edged rhetoric to make the point that Republicans are “waging war” against the middle class. They would be wise to remember, though, that rhetoric that appeals to the base often doesn’t resonate with voters in the middle.
Warren learned that lesson the hard way when Obama failed to appoint her to serve at the agency she conceived and set up, out of concern that her outspoken views wouldn’t pass muster in the Senate or with the public. He’s aiming for a do-over this time around, but the political environment is the same as it ever was.