Obama's Mythical America
The president will win if his Depression-era picture of America goes unanswered.
It of course was no coincidence that on the day Michiganders voted to give Mitt Romney a three-point win in his primary shootout with Rick Santorum, Barack Obama delivered a high-powered defense of the Detroit auto bailout to the United Auto Workers Convention. No, he wasn't in Detroit. That's the UAW's second favorite city. He and the UAW were in home sweet home—Washington, D.C. That's where the money is.
A pattern is emerging. Like some World Wrestling troupe on tour, the Republican rasslers travel through their primary states slamming each other into the turnbuckles. By contrast—and "contrast" is the most important word in election politics—the incumbent president continues to deliver the same speech, which defines him as saving America from them.
To be sure, the Obama re-election speech, as delivered to the auto union this week, isn't very presidential. It sounds like something one might have heard around South America in the 1950s: "They're saying that the problem is that you, the workers, made out like bandits. . . . Even by the standards of this town [Washington] that's a load of you-know-what."
But make no mistake: Barack Obama is defining his opposition, clearly and relentlessly. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum are ensuring that November's voters will end up with no idea who its nominee really is or what he stands for. That's not quite right. One thing is proven: Both have traduced "conservative principles."
The Obama campaign knows it has to compete in big, "working-class" states laden with electoral votes—Ohio (18 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (20), Michigan (16) and Wisconsin (10). To this end, the Obama narrative, his mythic America the Unfair, is now set. As defined in speeches from the State of the Union through the UAW barnburner, it goes like this:
Working men and women are the true American patriots: "It's unions like yours that helped build an arsenal of democracy that defeated fascism." (A nice Gingrichian touch there.)
You were in trouble: "The heartbeat of American manufacturing was flatlining."
They were going to sell you out: "Some even said we should 'let Detroit go bankrupt.'"
I saved you: "It wasn't just because of anything management did. It was because I believed in you. I placed my bet [the $80 billion bailout] on American workers."
They resent you: "They're still talking about you as if you were some greedy special interest that needs to be beaten."
The deck is stacked: "We will not settle for a country where a few people do really well, and everyone else struggles to get by."
The answer, as always, is America's abandoned values: "Hard work. Fair play. The opportunity to make it if you try."
Only one place to go—to the ramparts: "So I'll promise you this: As long as you've got an ounce of fight left in you, I'll have a ton of fight left in me. . . . God bless the work you do, and God bless America."
This is a caricature of a $15 trillion American economy functioning amid the complexities of the world circa 2012. Even Upton Sinclair, who wrote this sort of thing in "The Jungle" in 1906, would be embarrassed to pump out such a vision today.
Embarrassment is not in the Obama vocabulary. Mr. Obama's stock "working man" speech has been designed to paint the affluent businessman Mitt Romney as a cartoon Monopoly figure. Who would buy it? The same sort of people who bought Mitt Romney's caricature of Newt Gingrich in Florida. In politics, simple works, if simple is repeated and goes unanswered. And of course the Obama working-man myth is intended as a marker against Rick Santorum's variation of the myth pulled from the Pennsylvania coalfields.
Excepting the unlikely event that Mr. Romney sweeps Super Tuesday next week, it looks as though the Republican candidates could run until the June 5 primary with California's 172 delegates and New Jersey's 50 at stake. If what's to come the next three months is more of the same, then the winner, whether Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, will emerge as pulp. Neither man is likely to let up on the other. So be it. That's how this game is played.
Inexcusable, though, would be if the GOP bruisers let Barack Obama's Depression-era portrait of America go unchallenged. On current course, enough American voters really will believe that Barack Obama saved them from the 1930s.
But this rewrite of reality is precisely where Mr. Obama is most vulnerable. The economic and social world Barack Obama inhabits, and has always inhabited, is totally static. Your lot in life—income, status, mobility—is largely set, with little prospect of escaping upward.
He spoke in the UAW speech of "sons and daughters" aspiring to assembly-line jobs held by their grandparents. Even they don't believe life is that static. He promises to solve their economic problems by expropriating money from the wealthy. (France's Socialist presidential candidate called for a 75% top tax rate this week.) Boeing will be forced to make planes in Washington state—forever. Naturally this president's biggest believers live in Hollywood.
Most Americans are not so credulous. But unless the GOP candidates start spending more time dismantling Obama's mythical America instead of each other, this grim fairy tale could win.