More than a month ago, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed that Mitt Romney's proposed tax cuts for the affluent will require him to increase taxes on middle-class families by an average of $2,000 a year.
Since then, President Obama has put a calculator on his campaign website to help ordinary citizens calculate exactly how much their taxes will go up under a Romney administration. Occasionally he even mentions this statistic in his speeches. Apart from that, however, he has done little else with this precious information.
The fact that he has not transformed this figure into "The $2,000 Question" goes a long way toward explaining why he is in danger of losing.
It is not, as his opponents like to claim, because of the economy. While voters generally aren't pleased with Obama's performance on that front — a recent CBS News poll found that 55% disapproved of how he has handled economic issues, compared to only 39% who approve — this doesn't work against the president as much as his critics suggest.
As an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed this summer far more Americans believe that Obama inherited this economic crisis from his predecessor, George W. Bush, than that he caused these conditions himself (60% to 26%).
That doesn't free the president from the responsibility for cleaning up this mess. However, it does mean that this election is generally perceived not as a contest between a candidate whose brand is conflated with a poor economy and one freed from that burden (as was the case with Roosevelt and Hoover in 1932, Reagan and Carter in 1980, and Clinton and Bush in 1992), but rather as a choice between two competing approaches to dealing with a pre-existing crisis (as was the case with Roosevelt and Landon in 1936, Reagan and Mondale in 1984, and Clinton and Dole in 1996). That notion has been reinforced by past polls that showed, before Romney's PR offensive, voters had not decisively backed either candidate as being superior on the economic front.
Of course, now that Republicans have aggressively cranked up their offensive against Obama, those numbers have begun to shift more decisively to Romney's favor. The last time CBS News poll took the nation's temperature, 52% felt Romney would better handle the economy, compared to only 38% for the president. Even so, the fact that those figures have fluctuated in the past indicates that they aren't set in stone.
The good news is that the president has incontrovertible evidence that can destroy Romney's claim to being the better candidate on economic issues. The bad news is that he seems to have no idea what to do with it.
Simply shuffling it into a larger potpourri of attacks against Romney isn't enough. Because voters are bombarded with information during the course of an election campaign, they generally will only walk away with one or two key details as to the message each side is sending about its opponent.
Obama's strategy up to now has been to throw everything he can think of at Romney and hope that some of it sticks, from pointing out Romney's refusal to release his tax returns to condemning the misogynistic stances of the conservative base.
Romney, on the other hand, has wisely maintained a sharp focus on the message he believes will best work to his advantage — that Obama should be blamed for our economic problems and that the only solution is to replace Obama with him. As a result, while most voters can easily reiterate the case Romney has made for his candidacy, they are generally confused as to reasons Obama has offered as to why he should receive their vote.
The Tax Policy Center's findings offer him the clearest opportunity to change that. For one thing, polls already show voters feel Obama is more sympathetic to the needs of the working class than Romney, a perception obviously reinforced by last month's report.
More important, however, is the simple fact that widely disseminating this information would fatally undermine Romney's ability to claim he is the best candidate for voters' pocketbooks. While average Americans don't begrudge the affluent for their success, they certainly don't believe they should be forced to pay more so the rich can have a few extra breaks. Since that is what Romney proposes to do, Obama owes it to the American people to make sure they are aware of that.
Indeed, if Obama loses in November and has not made "The $2,000 Question" into a household term, he will have no one but himself to blame for his defeat.
Matthew Rozsa of Bethlehem is a Ph.D. student in history at Lehigh University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.