Barack Obama is foreign.
Oh yeah? Mitt Romney is a bully.
Think the U.S. presidential election will be about the economy? Think again.
On the economy, both presidential candidates are marked with indelible vulnerabilities.
President Obama first. He inherited the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. He has presided over a weak and fitful recovery.
During the recession of 2008-09, the U.S. lost more than 8 million jobs, net. Since 2009, the U.S. has gained only about 4.5 million jobs, net. Yes, the unemployment rate has improved somewhat since January 2009 -- but largely because so many people have quit searching for work. Among Americans of prime working age --16 to 54 -- the percentage in work today is the lowest since 1983, near the very beginning of the mass entry of married women into the workforce.
So Obama cannot run a "morning in America" campaign for recovery. Too many Americans are still shrouded in the pre-dawn murk.
Yet challenger Mitt Romney finds himself not much better positioned than incumbent Barack Obama.
His own job-creation record as governor of Massachusetts was not especially impressive. As a CEO, he was better known for downsizing purchased companies than for new hiring. And he has been pressed by his party to campaign on a platform that emphasizes radical spending cuts for the young and the poor and another big round of upper-income tax cuts on top of the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.
No wonder that both campaigns are looking for something else to talk about.
Over the past couple of weeks, they have found it -- or, more exactly, it's been found for them.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported an incident that occurred at Mitt Romney's prep school back in 1965. Romney, then an 18-year-old senior, had led a group of students in a hazing of a younger boy who wore his long hair dyed blond. "That's just wrong," Romney supposedly said. The Romney-led group pinned the boy to the ground. As the boy cried and called for help, Romney forcibly clipped his hair.
Stack that story on top of previous stories about Romney "liking to fire people" and caging his dog atop the roof of his car, and a narrative is born! The sober, responsible Romney has been transformed into Biff from Back to the Future to Jack from Lord of the Flies.
The anti-Obama side, meanwhile, has a constructed narrative of its own.
In Obama's long memoir, Dreams From My Father, he mentions that his Indonesian stepfather introduced him to dog meat. That old story was dusted off last month as a new revelation, kicking off an explosion of jokes about #obamadogrecipes and #obamaeatsdog.
Obama had a Kenyan father and an Indonesian stepfather. Raised in Indonesia and then Hawaii, he did not set foot on the American mainland until his freshman year in college. As a student at Columbia, his closest friends were from Pakistan. One of his most admired professors was a militant Palestinian. When he settled in Chicago, he joined a church presided over by a radical black pastor. Now dog meat.
A 2007 memo by Hillary Clinton's message guru, Mark Penn, articulates what this record can be made to mean: "[Obama's] roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and values."
The campaigns subtly appeal to these negative images in their messaging.
Mitt Romney's stump speech warns: "President Obama has said he wants to transform America. I don't want to transform America. I want to restore America."
The liberal Super-PAC PrioritiesUSA action meanwhile represents Romney as a super-greedy super-bully in its ad, "If he wins, we lose."
We'd like to imagine that elections are decided on the issues, by voters responding rationally to competing policy proposals. But myth and narrative are stronger than reason -- and strongest of all when, as now in the U.S., times are hard and solutions are lacking.
This blog is cross-posted at the National Post.
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