Obama vs. Romney: This Time It's Personal

The president targets his challenger while the economy stumbles.

July 09, 2012, 5:23 PM

WASHINGTON, July 10, 2012 -- Both candidates say this election is about the economy. But the Obama campaign has done its best to make everything about Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney's Swiss bank accounts. His vast wealth. His vacations.

Ann Romney said the Obama campaign is trying to "kill" her husband.

Here's how President Obama put it during a campaign speech on Friday in Ohio, the same day a government jobs report showed little growth and an unchanged unemployment rate:

"Mr. Romney's experience -- because he always says, 'I've got a lot of business experience; I know how to create jobs,' -- well, look, his company that he started were called the pioneers of business outsourcing. The pioneers of outsourcing. So that's his experience."

Obama's campaign speech was a model for what has become his strategy: talk about the economy only when necessary, and spend as much time as possible chipping away at Romney's secretive and corporate background.

Likability, after all, is the president's strongest attribute in the race. While voter preference is deadlocked at 47 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama is seen as more likable than Romney, 63-27 percent. He has a 10-point lead when people are asked who better understands the economic problems people are having.

On Sunday, Obama's top spokespeople got the memo, and they were on message. On a variety of political talk shows, Democrats repeated their concerns about Romney's Swiss bank account and other financial arrangements, so much so that the Democratic National Committee roped them all into a neat little video.

There's ex-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying nobody knows why Romney has a business in Bermuda that was just recently disclosed. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley says Romney put the company under his wife's name to avoid disclosure. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin says Romney is either hiding his business or that he thinks Swiss currency is stronger than the dollar.

"Why does an American businessman need a Swiss bank account and secretive investments like that?" DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz asks rhetorically.

Recent presidential elections have born out similar story lines: One candidate runs on policy, and the other campaigns on his opponent's character. In 2008, Obama's message was policy oriented with a post-crash focus on the economy; he repeatedly tied John McCain to President Bush, who had grown unpopular as jobs were lost. McCain's campaign, meanwhile, surfaced radical figures in Obama's life to paint him as an extremist; Sarah Palin famously said Obama was "palling around with terrorists." A McCain campaign ad mocked him for being a celebrity.

Four years earlier, Bush fought for reelection in a race that coined the term "swiftboating," a reference to the negative ads that accused John Kerry of being dishonest about his military service.

The race in 2012 might be unique in that Obama has actually admitted that his campaign will be focused on digging up Romney's history. "This is not a distraction," Obama said at a press conference, when questioned about his campaign's attack ads on Bain Capital, the firm Romney ran. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."

"I think what you're seeing is the Democrats taking a page out of the Republican playbook, which is, go after a core strength of the candidate and make it a negative," said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist who was Kerry's deputy press secretary in 2004.

In another sign of how personal the Obama campaign's message has become, the DNC's bandwidth on Monday was nearly all about Romney's finances and scant on the economy or policy. In emails to the press, the committee sent a handful of stories recounting Sunday's talking points on Romney -- including links to The Detroit News, The Boston Globe, Paul Krugman, and The Hill. During the day, the DNC organized a conference call for the press featuring Colorado Democrats to "highlight President Obama's efforts to protect middle class tax cuts" -- and "Romney's outsourcing record."

While Obama has scrutinized Romney's past, Romney has aimed his criticism not at Obama's background but rather the economy over the past three years. The Republican National Committee countered Obama's attacks on Romney with a graphic that shows the drop in the number of jobs added each month since January, along with quotes from news reports checking the accuracy of Obama's claims.

Romney's team raises its talking points on the economy whenever it can, and even though the candidate has been criticized for not being specific on economic policy, he hasn't gone after Obama in the style of Palin circa 2008, when Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright were central figures.

"Under this president, we've seen a record 41 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent," Billy Pitman, the RNC's communications director in Pennsylvania, wrote to the press. "So with no record to run on himself, President Obama is relying on misleading and false attacks on Governor Romney's private sector record."

"President Obama's failed policies have left the economy upside down from where it should be," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement that reads right off the GOP's script. "From Day One, Mitt Romney will implement bold, pro-growth policies that finally turn around the Obama economy."

In fact Romney's approach has been so economy-centric that he's even taken flak for that from conservatives, notably The Wall Street Journal's editorial board, which wrote last week: "The Romney campaign thinks it can play it safe and coast to the White House by saying the economy stinks and it's Mr. Obama's fault. We're on its email list and the main daily message from the campaign is that 'Obama isn't working.' Thanks, guys, but Americans already know that. What they want to hear from the challenger is some understanding of why the President's policies aren't working and how Mr. Romney's policies will do better."

Most voters still say the number-one issue for them is related to the economy, which is a boon for Romney's campaign. Polls have shown, though, that after a barrage of pro-Obama ads attacking Romney over his time at Bain, support for Romney in swing states has slipped. Democrats hope that they can recreate that success by drawing attention to Romney's personal finances.

"If this becomes a question for the American people," Di Martino said, "it's a huge problem for Mitt Romney."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events