Sunday's front-page "political memo" from New York Times reporter Richard Stevenson played into the Obama campaign's hands by obsessing over Romney's supposedly ostentatious displays of wealth, in contrast to Barack Obama's down-home populism: "On Tricky Terrain of Class, Contrasting Paths."
The print edition featured large dueling photos contrasting a down-home President Obama at the Kozy Corners restaurant in Ohio, with Romney and family on a boat at his New Hampshire estate. The online headline was blunter: "Obama and Romney Gamble on Wealth Divide."
The complex and fraught politics of wealth and class, undercurrents all along in the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney, are surfacing in increasingly visible ways in the presidential campaign, presenting big risks and opportunities to both sides.
The contrasting images of the week could hardly have been more evocative.
There was Mr. Obama on Thursday at a carefully scouted location, the Kozy Corners diner in Oak Harbor, Ohio, downing a burger and fries and chatting with a group of working-class voters about pinochle and trips to Disney World. The next day, as he continued a campaign swing, he reminisced about a Greyhound-and-train trip he took around the country with his grandmother when he was 11, staying at Howard Johnson and getting a thrill from leaping into the motel pool and fetching ice from the ice machine.
And there was Mitt Romney on Thursday, roaring across Lake Winnipesaukee on a powerboat large enough to hold two dozen members of his family who had gathered for a weeklong vacation at his estate in New Hampshire. On Sunday, Mr. Romney will raise money among wealthy Republicans in the Hamptons, with his final stop a $75,000-per-couple dinner at the home of David Koch, the billionaire industrialist, who with his brother Charles has been among the leading patrons of the conservative movement.
It was a vivid manifestation of calculations made by both camps.
Mr. Obama and his allies are testing the proposition that they can avoid tripping over the line into a full-tilt attack on the wealthy and still make an aggressive case that Mr. Romney’s success came at the expense of American workers and that the Republican Party is doing the bidding of its wealthy benefactors.
Stevenson lectured from the left.
In an era of populist backlashes against the 1 percent and increased concern about the economic and social ramifications of income inequality, will the long-held assumption that the United States is an aspirational society that admires rather than resents success hold true? At a time when individual billionaires and moneyed interests can play an outsize and often shadowy role in shaping politics and policy, do political leaders have less incentive to put the needs of the poor and the middle class ahead of the agendas of their benefactors?
Stevenson at least acknowledged, deep into the story, that Obama has his own wealthy donors.
Polling suggests that the Bain-based attacks on Mr. Romney are filtering through to voters in swing states. But wealth, class and politics are a combustible mix that can blow up in unpredictable ways, and Mr. Obama is not without his vulnerabilities on that score.
Like Mr. Romney, he has spent a good part of the campaign prospecting for donations among the 1 percent, rubbing shoulders with Anna Wintour and George Clooney and exhorting his wealthiest backers to give more.
Although he canceled plans to spend time on Martha’s Vineyard this summer and is emphasizing his real-guy side on the campaign trail, he has had troubles connecting with the white working-class voters who are likely to decide the election.
But Mr. Romney faces the challenge of appealing to the middle class as head of a party that is increasingly reliant on wealthy interests that are powering super PACs and other outside groups advertising heavily on behalf of Republicans.
Stevenson concluded with a Republican who helpfully gave the Democrats some vivid anti-Romney imagery:
“It just seems there’s been a hole in Romney’s biography that invites this stuff,” said Nelson Warfield, a Republican strategist who last worked on the presidential campaign of Gov. Rick Perry of Texas.
“It invites a shorthand: He’s the fat cat from the Monopoly board who has stacks of cash and doesn’t care about someone like me,” he said. “How effective it will be, I don’t know. But my suspicion is it probably works because the Obama people are pretty smart and there’s got to be a reason they’re doing it.”