PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida -- One candidate is worth up to $250 million, ran a private equity firm and plans to build an elevator for the cars at his beach house. The other is the former head of the Harvard Law Review who became a best-selling author and millionaire and now lives in the world’s most famous mansion -- 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Just don’t expect Mitt Romney and Barack Obama to embrace their elite status. In a campaign year when populism sells, they are trying to stick the rich guy label on each other, making clear that being wealthy and privileged is not necessarily a political asset when you’re running for president in this uncertain economy.
President Obama, traveling to battleground Florida, opened a new push by Democrats on Tuesday to increase taxes on millionaires, emphasizing a fight with Republicans. The proposal stands little chance of passing in Congress but serves as a stark general election contrast with Romney. The former Massachusetts governor, who opposes the plan, has faced withering criticism from Democrats who try to paint him as a ruthless financier who has paid lower tax rates unavailable to typical middle class families.
“Romney is a beneficiary of a broken tax system, and he wants to keep it that way,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a conference call with reporters Monday.
On the other hand, Romney’s team contends Obama’s plan would raise taxes on small businesses, harming an engine of growth and job creation at a time when the economy needs it the most. Romney campaign spokeswoman Gail Gitcho said Obama was the “first president in history to openly campaign for re-election on a platform of higher taxes,” and the Republican National Committee called the idea of higher taxes on millionaires a “political distraction” that would do little to cure the nation’s debt problem.
Obama is pitching the “Buffett rule,” named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, which argues that wealthy taxpayers should not pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-class wage-earners. Obama has proposed that people earning at least $1 million annually—whether in salary or investments—should pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. Many wealthy people earn most of their income through investments, which is taxed at 15 percent, allowing them to pay a lower overall rate.
Obama’s team and Senate Democrats have teed up the issue ahead of the annual mid-April deadline when many Americans file their income tax returns with the federal government. In addition to Obama’s speech, Vice President Joe Biden plans to discuss the issue in New Hampshire on Thursday, and Obama’s campaign is using social media to spread the message. Yet beyond tax policy, the Buffett rule serves as a touchstone in the contenders’ fight to portray each other as the candidate of the elite at a time of 8.2 percent unemployment.
While both Romney and Obama are millionaires, there is a huge difference in their wealth. Presidential candidates have to disclose broad outlines of their holdings, but it’s possible to discern only a wide range. Romney is worth $190 million to $250 million, according to the filings. Obama is worth between $1.8 million and nearly $12 million.
Democrats contend Romney’s past as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital is a major weakness because he was paid to reorganize companies, a process that sometimes led to the elimination of jobs. Obama’s campaign has repeatedly pressed Romney to release several years of tax returns, pointing to personal tax records that have shown investments in the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account. There have been no indications, however, that the investments were used to avoid taxes.
And then there are some of the video clips circulating on YouTube: Romney’s proposed $10,000 bet to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during a debate in December; his declaration in January, discussing health insurance providers, that he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me,” and more recently his comment in February that he’s “not concerned about the very poor” because they have an “ample safety net.”
Romney’s wealth gained more attention last month when Politico reported that planned renovations to his San Diego-area oceanside home included a four-vehicle garage with an “elevator lift” to transport vehicles between floors.
Romney, focusing ever more attention on Obama, has made a concerted push to paint the president as a detached liberal who doesn’t fully grasp the depths of the nation’s economic woes. Obama, who has written two best-selling books and taught law at the University of Chicago School of Law, is portrayed as an enthusiastic supporter of government instead of private enterprise.
In one dig, Romney calls Obama a “nice guy ... who spent too much time at Harvard”—though Romney himself earned a joint JD/MBA at Harvard, spending more time there than Obama. Romney also says the president suffers from “years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you’re great and doing a great job.”
Both would be considered wealthy by any standard. Romney’s campaign has estimated that he is paying more than $6.2 million in taxes on $45 million in income for the past two years. Obama and his wife, Michelle, reported income of $1.73 million last year, mostly from books he’s written, and they paid more than $450,000 in federal taxes.
Both Romney and Obama have made appeals to Americans by highlighting more routine endeavors: Obama ventured into an Irish pub on St. Patrick’s Day to down a pint of Guinness and frequently talks about his devotion to basketball and other sports. Romney, whom aides describe as a penny-pincher, has used Twitter to remind voters about flying Southwest Airlines and grabbing lunch at Subway. In January, one of Romney’s sons circulated a photo of his dad doing his own laundry.
Obama’s team points to polls showing the president with favorable personal approval ratings and relatively high marks when respondents are asked whether he can relate to their problems. A poll released Tuesday by The Washington Post and ABC News found Obama with a double-digit lead over Romney, 49-37, when adults were asked who better understands their economic problems. About half of the respondents, 52 percent, said unfairness in the economic system favoring the wealthy represented a bigger problem for the country than over-regulation of the free market system, chosen by 37 percent.
Others, however, caution that Obama’s populist message can only take him so far, especially with unaligned voters critical in a close election.
Matt Bennett, a former White House aide under Bill Clinton and vice president of Third Way, a Democratic-centrist group, pointed to polling released Monday by his organization that found many independent voters more focused on a presidential candidate emphasizing the increasing of opportunity instead of reducing income inequality.
“Tax fairness is just not their biggest concern and arguments about fairness didn’t answer their primary economic worries,” Bennett said. “What swing voters want to hear is an optimistic vision for putting the American economy back on top.”