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14 July 2012, Gateway House

Romney vs. Obama: A problem of class

At the heart of the U.S. Presidential elections campaign is a debate about class. This time, the scenario is different: recession, slow economic recovery, the Occupy movement and many financial scandals have expanded the domain for the forbidden topic.

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Americans hate admitting they have a class system, let alone talk about it. To accept that their society is just like any other would undermine the very idea of the American dream – an idea essentially about upward mobility through hard work and merit.

But in this presidential campaign the issue has come front and centre, forcing a debate that neither the Democrat nor Republican party really relishes. It has pitched the financial elite, of which Mitt Romney is a card-carrying member, against the liberal elite exemplified by Barack Obama.

The presumptive Republican nominee Romney is a man of fortune – last estimated between $190 million to $250 million – with off shore accounts in those exotic islands.  His refusal so far to submit his tax returns prior to 2010 has led to charges that he is hiding something and may have gamed the system.

No surprise that the Obama campaign is enjoying this delicious moment, asking why Romney won’t come open about his Swiss bank account or investments in the Cayman Islands. If tax returns for the last five to ten years are released, as is the norm for presidential candidates, they would be a gold mine of information for the Democratic Party attack team.

Obama too has serious pedigree although not of the financial kind. He is what might be called the intellectual elite – degrees from Columbia University and Harvard Law School with vacations in Martha’s Vineyard. If Romney raises money from well-heeled Republicans, Obama is feted by Hollywood liberals.

At the heart of it all is a debate about class – although the word would never easily escape the candidates’ mouth except as a diversionary tactic. Republicans use it effectively to accuse the Democrats of waging “class warfare” to divide an otherwise harmonious society by daring to talk about income levels of the less fortunate.  The technique generally works to block all meaningful debate on class.

But this time the scenario is different. The recession, the slow economic recovery, the Occupy movement and the many financial scandals involving top banks have expanded the domain for the forbidden topic.

The net result: the Republican candidate is at the receiving end. Romney is accused of being part of the upper crust, the silver- spoon brigade, with bank accounts on the islands instead of inland. Every major issue he has tried to address – be it job creation or health care reform – his ‘elite’ shadow refuses to leave.

His experience of heading Bain Capital, an investment firm he co-founded, as testimony of his business acumen and job creation abilities, collapsed amid evidence of ‘off shoring’ of jobs. When he tried to argue that he wasn’t heading the company after 1999 when jobs were sent abroad but running the Salt Lake Olympics instead, the Boston Globe revealed that technically he indeed was at the helm of Bain until 2002 as the filings to the Security and Exchange Commission showed.

The decision not to be transparent has cost Romney, creating serious image problems. If he doesn’t reveal his tax returns, how can the voters trust what he has to say on ‘reforming’ the tax code or believe he won’t soak the poor?

Obama’s people are milking the issue for all it is worth. David Axelrod, Obama’s top strategist, called Romney the “most secretive candidate that we have seen, frankly, since Richard Nixon.” Vice President Joseph Biden, never to miss a jab or a jibe, told Latino voters: “He wants you to show your papers, but he won’t show us his. It’s kind of fascinating.”

The more Romney tries to distance himself from stuff that reeks of huge profits and apparent tax evasion, more the image endures of an upper class man who thinks that rules are for poor people.

During one of the Republican presidential debates last December in Iowa, he famously offered to bet former candidate Rick Perry a “mere” $10,000 to settle a dispute over his healthcare record. The gaffe sparked comments that Romney is surely among the 1% who knows little about the 99%.

Romney’s attempt to win black voters on Wednesday by addressing the top black civil rights organisation and shed a little of the “white image” fell flat and brought more charges of being disconnected from the real people, especially from African Americans. Instead of addressing their main concern about how certain Republican-ruled states are making voter registration more difficult, a move that disproportionately affects blacks, the candidate talked of slashing social programmes which help them.

More controversially, he was accused of simply “using” the address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NCAAP), the oldest and most venerable civil rights group, to rouse his conservative white base back in the heartland. He told the NAACP conference he would repeal Obama’s health care reform, a signature achievement generally appreciated by African Americans and others less privileged.

Romney was booed as might have been expected. But perhaps, that is what his strategists wanted because “pissing off black people usually adds value” to white Republicans, wrote a widely-read columnist Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast.

A vast majority of African American voters support Obama even though the unemployment rate for the community is much higher than the national average. They are willing to give him another chance because they don’t want the gains on education, healthcare and consumer protection – howsoever modest – reversed by a Republican president.

Both Obama and Romney might want to read the bottom line in a new report released earlier this month on economic mobility by the Pew Charitable Trusts. It says that while the median income has gone up in every economic bracket, the relative mobility or the chance to rise to a higher income level is stalled, especially at the bottom of the ladder. People may be earning more than their parents, but they are not moving up in relative terms.  The survey says that 36% of American families have fallen behind, bringing down the country’s overall mobility below even that of some European countries. In other words, the poor in the US have more difficulty rising compared to other developed countries.

If this is not about class, what is? An absence of mobility contributes to class divisions, making them harder to overcome.  If you are lucky to be born in the right home, you can realize the dream but should the ability to achieve be a matter of chance?

It is unlikely the debate will careen to starkly discussing the issues but it is still progress that the idea of what is “fair” has made a definite debut in the modern American political lexicon.

Seema Sirohi, an international journalist and analyst, is a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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