Obama goes for the jugular with Romney ads, but at what price?

US President Obama used negative ads against John McCain during his 2008 presidential bid. Four years later, with voter confidence shaken and jobs creation lagging, the incumbent and his team have cooked up something much tougher for Mitt Romney.


In 2008, the Obama campaign made savvy use of negative advertisements to slam Republican John McCain as erratic, clueless and generally unfit for the presidency.

But that looks like nothing compared to what the president and his re-election team seem to have cooking this time around.

More than five months before he faces off against Mitt Romney in a general election, Obama is pummelling his rival with attack ads that needle him for hoarding riches in a Swiss bank account, failing to uphold promises as governor of Massachusetts and callously firing people and shipping jobs abroad as head of private equity firm Bain Capital.

The Obama campaign is also hitting the Republican candidate for palling around with tycoon Donald Trump, one of the champions of “birtherism”, the theory that Obama was not born in the US.

According to Karlyn Bowman, a political analyst from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, the ads serve a definite purpose in Obama’s re-election campaign. “Attack ads are a tradition in US politics, and research suggests that they work,” she offered. “Obama needs to turn his core supporters out in substantial numbers, and these ads will remind them that he’s a real political fighter.”

Given recent worrying jobs data that points to a recovery losing momentum, the president’s likely trying to play a game of distraction by continuously attacking Romney. Still, Obama’s timing is unusual. “He’s going very negative at an unusually early point in the campaign cycle,” Bowman said.

Bad governor, job killer, tax evader

Obama’s team didn’t seem to be overly concerned Monday, as they released the latest of their various ads, entitled “Heard it Before” (right). Targeting Romney’s tenure as governor of Massachusetts between 2003 and 2007, the ad notes Romney had one of “the worst economic records in the country”, forty-seventh in job creation. The ad seemed tailored to cut Obama’s rival down to size in the wake of last week’s dismal jobs report; Obama may not be an unmitigated job-creating success, the president’s campaign implies, but Romney's nothing to write home about either.

Other ads over the last month have sought to portray Romney as a callous, extravagantly wealthy capitalist who couldn’t possibly understand the problems of middle-class Americans. One ad (below) links Romney’s practices as CEO of Bain Capital in the early 1990s to the three million dollars stored under the candidate’s name in a Swiss bank from 2003 to 2010. Accusing Romney of shipping jobs overseas while running the company, a narrator quips that “it’s just what you’d expect from a guy who had a Swiss bank account.”

Similar ads have been posted to, a Web site launched by the Obama campaign that seeks to hammer home the image of Romney as a corporate shark whose success came at the expense of others. Some of the videos tug at the heartstrings, including one (below) in which laid-off Kansas steel workers talk about how Bain bought and then closed down the plant where they worked. “[Romney] destroyed thousands of people’s careers, lifetimes,” one man recounts to the strains of morose-sounding music.

'Nauseating' attacks or clever strategy?

Obama’s efforts to portray his rival as a ruthless Mr. Moneybags have raised concerns among party insiders that wealthy Democrat donors may be offended by what they see as continued rhetorical attacks on capitalism - especially since the president already ruffled feathers on Wall Street with his financial regulatory overhaul in May 2010.

Indeed, ads targeting Romney’s time at Bain and his wealth in general have been denounced by Obama allies like investor Steven Rattner and rising Democrat star (and mayor of Newark, New Jersey) Cory Booker, who called the attacks “nauseating”. Former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat who remains popular among both middle-class workers and Wall Street big wigs, also leapt to Romney’s defence, qualifying his business career as “sterling”.

Obama, meanwhile, has brushed off any criticism of his approach. “This is what this campaign is going to be about,” he unapologetially told reporters last month. “I’ve got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I’m thinking about folks who have been much more successful.”

Paulson, the high-level 2008 Obama campaign staffer, thinks the ads taking Romney to task for his past as a business powerbroker make for good politics, as opposed to other possible angles. “Romney as heartless capitalist is a great line for the Democrat base, and it’ll also resonate for independent voters who are annoyed at Wall Street elites and think everyday Americans are picking up the bill,” Paulson said. “Smarter Democrat donors will understand that this is strategy. Obama’s not going to beat Romney by painting him as an extremist, because his record points to opportunism, not to extremism.”

Risks for Obama

All the same, the Obama campaign is also arguing that Romney has moved dangerously to the right. One recent ad called “Two Republican Nominees” (right) strikes at Romney’s alliance with one of his highest-profile fundraisers, real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump. The ad contrasts 2008 Republican nominee John McCain defending Obama from a supporter’s remarks that he was an “Arab” extremist with footage of Trump espousing the “birther” theory, popular among some Tea Party supporters, that Obama was born outside the US and is therefore ineligible for the presidency. The implication is that, unlike honourable Republicans like McCain, Romney is willing to flirt with fringe elements of his party in order to win.

“What they’re doing with all these different ads is trying to see which message works,” Paulson explained, adding Obama risks “looking incoherent by trying too many lines of attack at once.”

Bowman pointed to another downside: “Obama runs the risk of diminishing one of his great strengths: his likability.”

A recent poll shows a favourability rating of 56 percent for the candidate who rose to the presidency on a tide of positive slogans including “hope”, “change”, and “yes we can”. Pundits will be watching that number closely if Obama's barrage of attack ads continues.

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