While the Supreme Court's upholding of the health care law was last week's most important event in historical terms, it will not be the decisive event of the 2012 election. In the long run, polling in swing states suggesting that Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital is hurting him could have larger implications for where this campaign will move.
It's certainly true that had the court knocked down President Obama's signature domestic achievement, the defeat would have been woven into a narrative of ineffectual leadership and mistaken priorities. Instead, the president found vindication not only from the court's liberals but also from Chief Justice John Roberts.
But precisely because the decision saved the president from disaster on health care, it only reinforced the importance of the economic argument Obama and Romney have been having for months. And here is where Romney's Bain problem kicks in.
As Democrats, mostly from Washington and New York, debated the efficacy of attacks on Romney's role in Bain, an entirely different conversation was being driven in the swing states, courtesy of ads broadcast by the Obama campaign and especially by Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama super PAC. The ads portray highly sympathetic workers who lost their jobs and companies that collapsed even as Bain's principals made substantial profits.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last week provided surprisingly dramatic evidence of how much these commercials are wounding Romney.
In the country as a whole, 23 percent said they viewed Romney more positively because of his experience "managing a firm that specializes in buying, restructuring and selling companies," while 28 percent said this made them view Romney more negatively. But in this year's 12 battleground states, many of which have gotten a heavy run of the anti-Bain ads, only 18 percent viewed Romney's business experience positively; 33 percent viewed it negatively. Obama led Romney by three points nationally but by eight in the battlegrounds.
This is disturbing news for Romney, who hoped his business experience would be an unalloyed asset. The numbers also underscore voter resistance to the core conservative claim that job creation is primarily about rewarding wealthy investors and companies through further tax cuts and less regulation. Americans are not anti-business, but they are skeptical that everything that is good for corporations is also good for their employees, and for job creation itself.
The Bain ads have done double-duty, specifically undermining Romney but also serving as a parable for how aspects of the current financial system hurt workers and local communities. Profits and productivity can rise even as real wages stagnate or fall, and jobs can be offshored and outsourced. The Romney campaign's response to a recent Washington Post story describing Bain's record on outsourcing -- the campaign sought to "differentiate between domestic outsourcing versus offshoring" -- sounded more like bureaucratic gobbledygook than an effective answer. Obama picked up on the story immediately, calling Romney an "outsourcing pioneer."
But can the Obama campaign turn the argument over Romney and Bain into a broader challenge to the Republican claim that the only thing government can do to spur job creation is to get out of the way? "Jobs" will remain the Romney battle cry for the rest of the campaign, but the success of the anti-Bain offensive points to an opportunity for Obama to engage in a kind of political jujitsu. He can argue that Romney's primary interest is not in job creation at all but in low-tax and deregulatory policies he would favor whether the economy was soaring or flat.
In a recent talk at the Center for American Progress, Stefan Löfven, the new leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, outlined a way to turn the debate around, arguing that job creation worldwide should be the focus of center-left parties. New policies on job creation should also be concerned with the quality and conditions of the jobs, how quickly the unemployed can be moved to new work, and how the unemployed are treated and assisted toward new opportunities.
Here are the questions voters should be encouraged to ask in 2012: Should government focus directly on innovative approaches to creating good jobs in a new economy? Or should it be relegated to a position of powerlessness in which its only option is to concede ever more benefits to those -- including the financial wizards at Bain -- who are already doing very well indeed?
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).