For years, President’s Obama’s political opponents have used his background — Kenyan father, Kansan mother, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii — to cast him as somehow exotic, someone whose life makes it hard for him to understand the average American.
And yet, it’s Mitt Romney, Obama’s general election opponent, who is now dealing with an “exotic” issue that is centered on his considerable wealth and being played out in the ongoing fight over whether he will release more than two years worth of tax returns.
“He is an extremely wealthy man,” Steve Schmidt, who managed Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign and was involved in the vetting of Romney for vice president, said during an appearance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press”. “His tax returns do not look anything like the average American’s.”
Schmidt hit the nail on the head in assessing the political problem of Romney’s tax returns — and also lays out the most likely explanation for why the former Massachusetts governor and his campaign have been so stingy about releasing more.
Romney’s biggest struggle in the general election — and the Republican presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012 — is and has been convincing people that he understands them.
His Mormon faith (a religion shared by a tiny fraction of the American public) coupled with his upbringing (his father served as the governor of Michigan and ran for president) are two major differences between the former governor and many of the people he is trying to win over.
Add his personal wealth — Romney made nearly $22 million without earning a salary in 2010 — and the former Massachusetts governor faces of trifecta of problems as he seeks to convince voters that he understands them at a gut level.
That struggle to connect is borne out in polling. In a Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted earlier this month, 50 percent of people said that Obama “better understands the economic problems people in this country are having,” while 40 percent said that Romney had a better grasp of those issues. (Among political independents, the news is better for Romney; 44 percent say Obama better understands the economic problems faced by regular people, while 42 percent say Romney does.)
It’s not likely that Romney — whether or not he releases a substantial portion of his past tax returns — will ever be entirely relatable to the average person. And in an election in a time of relative prosperity, that connection issue might doom his chances.
But we are not in times of economic prosperity. And as the New York Times-CBS News poll released last week showed in stark terms, this election, at least at the moment, is about Obama’s handling of the economy and little else.
If that dynamic doesn’t change, Romney’s exoticness — particularly as it relates to his wealth/taxes — might not matter. But if Obama can turn the race from a referendum on his first term into a choice between he and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor looks likely to continue to struggle to sell himself as a man of the people.