Fear-mongering Rules Obama, Romney Campaigns

Economic anxieties being fanned by presidential campaigns.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney

The presidential campaigns for President Obama and his Republican rival Mitt Romney are both banking on Americans' anxiety about debt and the need to rebuild the national economy in their efforts to bolster the case for their candidates.

A new advertisement by the Obama campaign seeks to paint Romney as a cold-blooded capitalist, building on a theme the Democrat hopes will lead to his re-election. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign and national Republicans have launched a weeklong attack on Obama's record of debt and deficits, with Romney scheduled to give a debt and spending policy address in Iowa on Tuesday.

Each candidate's strategy carries its own set of risks and rewards.

"I react poorly to the Obama campaign message because it's almost like saying you can't have both--you can't have the Bain Capitals of the world doing really well because somehow that takes away from others," says Phillip Swagel, public policy professor at the University of Maryland and visiting scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. "I don't think that's the case."

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Swagel says in order to make a truly compelling argument, Obama needs to lay out a positive alternative for the country's economic future, not just denigrate Romney's career.

"I think that argument will carry weight if Obama puts forward a positive plan of his own, saying this other guy destroyed jobs and here's my plan and here's how we're going to grow the economy," he says. "That's what seems like it's missing still, from both sides to some extent, this vision of the future growth."

Leonard Steinhorn, public communications professor at American University, says the narrative the Obama team is crafting about Romney is textbook negative campaigning.

"What every campaign does is try to have voters trust the other person less, listen to them less, and not accept their explanation as much," he says.

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In this case, the Obama campaign furthers a storyline initiated during the Republican primary battle when his then-rival, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, called Romney a "vulture capitalist."

"They want to portray him as a cold-blooded capitalist, not someone who is interested in building society but somebody who is merely interested in making money for himself," Steinhorn says. "And that really goes against the idea of the hard and meaningful work that the middle class cares about and that we're all in this thing together to build a better society so that people can work hard in meaningful jobs."

Conversely, the Romney campaign is building on pre-existing voter anxiety about the country's massive deficits and stagnant economy.

"Romney's messaging will be to portray Obama as somebody who is not necessarily up to the job and therefore don't listen to him because he doesn't really know what he's talking about," Steinhorn says. "The goal for both is to keep voters from being open to the message of the other side."

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Recent polling shows Romney ahead of Obama when it comes to who Americans trust to handle the economy, whereas Obama leads Romney when it comes to likability.

Swagel adds that, thanks to the current shape of the economy, battles on these tangential topics will continue to take center stage in the campaign.

"The economy is not so strong that Obama is going to coast, but it's not so week that he's just going to be thrown out, and so all these other things are coming into play," he says. "It just feels like this is going to be a campaign where the economy continues along this bumpy trajectory, and we're just going to see this swirl of other arguments."

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.