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‘Poor’ miscues will give Obama edge in general election

Posted: February 7, 2012 11:07 a.m.
Updated: February 8, 2012 5:00 a.m.

When Mitt Romney said his now infamous words -- “I’m not concerned about the very poor” -- he was adding to an already disconcerting track record of tactlessness toward unemployed and lower income Americans.

There was the “I’m also unemployed” statement to a group of jobless Floridians during a campaign stop in Tampa Bay last June. There was his “admission” that he was afraid of getting a pink slip a couple of times during his time as a multi-millionaire executive with Bain Capital. Then there was the $10,000 bet with then- candidate Rick Perry during a debate in Iowa last December.

Add all these miscues up and it allows President Obama and his re-election team to easily paint Romney as inattentive and insensitive toward the poor. But Romney’s “not concerned about the very poor” statement will likely be used somewhat out of context when it comes time to campaign for the general election.

Simply hearing those words makes it sound as if Romney has no qualms about letting jobless and lower income Americans fend for themselves on the streets. He noted after his “poor” comments that the U.S. has a safety net in place and “if it needs repair, I’ll fix it.” He went on to say that he was also “not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the heart of America – the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.”

While the rest of his comments are only marginally better in full context, his premise points to a recent and ever growing trend in presidential politics -- the nominees of both parties must consider the middle class the Holy Grail of the electorate in a general election.

But Romney’s message was delivered in the wrong way and at the wrong time. First, he overtly put too much of an emphasis on the middle class. There is a much better way to phrase his economic mentality than saying he is only concerned about a specific slice of the American public. Second, this isn’t the general election. This is still primary season and comments won’t even play well with members of his party. 

Conservatives will believe Romney’s comments indicate that he won’t concentrate on overhauling the system. His fellow Republican, Rep. Paul Ryan, House Budget Committee chairman, has already introduced a plan to dramatically restructure the federal entitlements that make up the country’s safety net. Ryan’s plan calls for means-tested Social Security and converting Medicare to a voucher-like program. But Romney seems to be saying he envisions only simple tweaks of the safety net.

Once the general election gets here, liberals will believe Romney isn’t interested in helping the poor at all beyond safety net programs like Medicaid and welfare. It will help fuel jobless and lower income voters to cast a vote for Obama, believing Romney is too out-of-touch to be president.

But Romney can right the ship if he can develop a clear-cut platform for poorer Americans. He needs to show his administration will not simply give handouts, but that he will also give people a chance to get back on their feet. If he can’t explain that to voters, his Richie Rich caricature will only get worse. And that will be great news to Obama come November.  

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