The media are having no problem decoding the not-so-secret message from last night's State of the Union address. More than anything, Barack Obama wants us to know that Mitt Romney is what the president's new role model, Theodore Roosevelt, would have called a "malefactor of great wealth."
"President Obama did not mention Mitt Romney on Tuesday evening, but he didn't need to," writes Mark Landler in today's New York Times. Landler calls Romney "the natural foil" for Obama on issues such as income inequality, taxes and trade.
Or as John Nichols puts it in The Nation: "What was remarkable was the precision with which Obama assaulted the man whom the president's aides still anticipate will be his Republican challenger."
What is not remarkable is that media commentators are focusing almost exclusively on the political aspects of Obama's address. It's hardly news that the media establishment is infected with a virulent form of Washington insiderism. Pundits focus on tactics and polls to the exclusion of substance. I suspect the president could launch a missile strike against Iran (God help us), and within 15 minutes someone would opine that Obama was responding to something Newt Gingrich said.
This time, though, I think the focus on politics is warranted. Obama's speech really was largely political -- the last chance he'll have to make an uninterrupted case against Romney in prime time. He took full advantage of that opportunity with a good-enough speech that contrasted favorably with the Republican gong show we've seen in an interminable series of debates.
The timing of Obama's assault on Romney couldn't have been better for the president and his supporters. Earlier in the day, Romney finally released his tax returns, confirming that one of the richest men ever to run for president pays a considerably lower tax rate than the guy who fixes your car. If Romney hoped the State of the Union would overshadow his long-delayed document dump, then he miscalculated. As Glenn Thrush and Josh Gerstein write at Politico:
CNN and the other cable networks essentially treated them like one story, dovetailing together -- Obama blasting the excesses of the rich, Romney paying too little in taxes and shuttling his cash overseas to accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland.
Romney's weakness as a candidate was uppermost in the minds of Obama's Republican and conservative critics even before last night's speech. At the Weekly Standard, William Kristol is so desperate that he's trying to start a boomlet for the union-busting Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels, who delivered a reasonably solid Republican response last night in a narcolepsy-inducing monotone.
"If Mitch Daniels' effective tax rate is 30 percent rather than 15 percent, and if he was never paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac, he can be the next president," Kristol writes. But a more realistic assessment comes from John Hinderaker at the conservative Powerline blog, who calls Daniels "Tim Pawlenty without the charisma." Or as Nate Silver tweeted, "Daniels could unite the Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty coalitions into an unstoppable 7% of the Republican vote."
Assuming Romney overcomes the challenges posed by Gingrich and his own political ineptitude, it is clear that his immense wealth and his success at avoiding taxes will be major issues for the media during the 2012 campaign.
No sooner had Romney released his tax returns, for instance, than Slate posted a "Romney income calculator" -- enter your salary and "find out how long it would have taken Mitt Romney to earn the same amount of money." (Not to give too much away, but for our family the answer works out to two days, four hours, 34 minutes and 22 seconds.)
At a moment when inequality is becoming a major issue for the first time in years, the danger for Romney is that he's emerging as the very symbol of everything Americans despise about an economic system they believe is stacked against them.
It's an argument that may well resonate within the media, giving Obama an enormous advantage at a time when, by the normal rules of politics, his own economic record should be the main issue. Obama pressed that advantage last night. We'll be hearing a lot more of it in the months to come.
Follow Dan Kennedy on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dankennedy_nu