Does Obama Have a Rich-Guy Problem, Too?

PHOTO: President Barack Obama speaks during a Lawyers for Obama Luncheon fundraiser on March, 16, 2012, at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
President Barack Obama speaks during a 'Lawyers for Obama Luncheon' fundraiser on March, 16, 2012, at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago.

Mitt Romney is rich, and everyone knows it.

Every time the mega-millionaire slips and reminds Republicans how above earth he is — the Nascar and NFL owners who are his friends, the pair of Cadillacs his wife drives — Democrats do their best to repeat his comments so they stick. The implication is that the former Massachusetts governor is "out of touch" with regular working people, and President Obama isn't.

Except for that Obama, after three years as president, has plenty of rich friends, too. Hollywood liberals Jeffrey Katzenberg and Bill Maher have donated millions to his "super PAC," Anna Wintour and George Clooney party at the White House, and Tom Hanks narrates a documentary about Obama's presidency. Sure, he's not as rich as Romney is, but a horde of celebrities runs the risk of blocking Obama's view of Main Street in an election where the struggling economy is seen by most voters as the most important issue.

"There's no question that Barack Obama doesn't connect in the way that Bill Clinton did with people — you know, the old line, 'I feel your pain,' " said Michael Coles, the former CEO of Caribou Coffee, who was a major fundraiser for Obama in 2008. "But there is definitely still a connection with ordinary people that I don't think you're seeing from Mitt Romney."

Obama hit his lowest point with working-class voters during his 2008 primary campaign, when he told San Francisco liberals that middle-class Pennsylvanians "cling to guns or religion" when they get "bitter." Four years later, Obama is again at a critical juncture with the working class, over rising gas prices. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that only 44 percent of people making less than $50,000 approved of Obama's job performance, and that 52 percent of them disapproved.

Some of Obama's allies see his vice president as the answer to this problem. Joe Biden, who was the poorest senator when Obama brought him onto the ticket in 2008, stepped into official campaign mode last week with a stump speech to union workers in Ohio.

Jim Williams, the president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said Biden's flair for winning over the middle-class comes from his authenticity — a point he made by recalling a meeting before the 2008 primaries at a Washington hotel among about 10 union presidents and the pride of Scranton. Biden, who was seeking the Democratic nomination at the time, was speaking to the union chiefs late into the night.

"Do you ever think that, like, Barbara Boxer or Feinstein would be here at 1:30 in the morning drinking sambucas with a bunch of labor people?" Williams said. "He's sitting there, he's dropping F-bombers."

"You're going to see the blue-collar Joe Biden turned loose on the working man," Williams said of the 2012 race. "And he connects real well."

Republicans can't do much to protect Romney from the impression that he's richer than the average person, but GOP strategist Robert Moran argued that when Democrats harp on Romney's riches, they reveal that they'd rather talk about his personal fortune than more substantive topics on which Obama could be troubled.

"The candidates' individual wealth is somewhat of a tempest in a teapot, because the voter doesn't care so much about how wealthy the candidates are," Moran said. "They care about how wealthy they are."

Some of Obama's richer allies dismissed the idea that the president could be damaged by the perception of being too close to Hollywood and Wall Street types, despite taking millions of dollars from them and supporting the bailout of the banks that caused the financial crisis.

They might have a point — a brief dust-up in the summer of 2011 over a secret meeting Obama had with elite donors in the White House's Blue Room was almost immediately forgotten, despite the news being forced out of the administration by the press. At that March 7 meeting organized by the Democratic National Committee, Obama spoke with 30 donors to his 2008 campaign, many of whom work on Wall Street.

"I know he is meeting a number of people who have wealth, and virtually any president, particularly one who is going to run a second time, is going to meet such persons, but I think Barack Obama has a very steady anchor in terms of his value system," said Peter Buttenweiser, a major Obama bundler. "Who he's meeting with and who he's talking with, etcetera, seems to me to be somewhat irrelevant."