Is Obama vs. Romney also Occupy Wall Street vs. Bain Capital?

OPINION - Romney's aggressive defense of capitalism, combined with President Obama's recent shift towards more populist rhetoric, have illustrated a fundamental divide over the American economy and how it affects people's lives...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s recent moves, from decrying the “politics of envy” to his revelation on Tuesday that he pays a lower tax rate than millions of Americans, has created the potential for a presidential election fought over class and income inequality in a way unseen in the last two decades.

Romney’s aggressive defense of capitalism, combined with President Obama’s recent shift towards more populist rhetoric, have illustrated a fundamental divide over the American economy and how it affects people’s lives.

If Romney wins the GOP nomination, this difference could result in an election shaped by two very different visions of the country, as opposed to results determined in part by scandals (2000), a war far from America’s shores (2004) or a historic economic meltdown (2008).

The gap is surprising; Romney is perhaps the most liberal of the GOP presidential candidates and ran Massachusetts in a moderate style when he was the governor there. Obama is an unlikely populist; he courted the backing of Wall Street throughout his 2008 campaign and has spent much of the last three years facing criticism from liberals that he is not on their side.

But increasingly Democrats, including the Obama campaign, are adopting the “1 Percent” rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, casting Romney and other wealthy individuals as profiting while the broader middle class suffers.

Over the last two weeks, Obama’s campaign aides have used personal, sharp language to attack Romney’s work at Bain Capital, moving from the realm of public policy to suggest essentially the whole idea of private equity firms is counterproductive. They are now likely to attack Romney for benefiting from lower tax rates on investment income.

“President Obama — who, like Mitt Romney, earned a degree from Harvard and all the opportunities that affords — began his career helping jobless workers in the shadow of a closed-down steel mill. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, made millions closing down steel mills,” top Obama aide Stephanie Cutter wrote in a memo the campaign released publicly last week.

Romney has strongly condemned this kind of rhetoric, saying recently income inequality should be discussed in “quiet rooms” and slamming former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his attacks on Romney’s record at Bain.

If he is nominated, Romney is unlikely to adopt the even more conservative rhetoric of former Senator Rick Santorum and Gingrich, who have both suggested the poor suffer in part because they are not eager to work. At the same time, the former Massachusetts governor seems ready to strongly defend conservative economic views even as many Americans worry that middle-class wages have stagnated while the rich are earning more.

This divide is already playing out on issues; Romney’s tax plan gives huge cuts to millionaires who he says help create jobs; Obama would raise their taxes. But what the two campaigns are debating is even more fundamental: does every American currently have shot at getting to the middle class and is something wrong if the income gap between the middle class and the wealthy continue to grow? Is it wrong for businesses to aggressively seek higher profit margins, even if it results in laid-off workers?

This kind of election debate could be more difficult than the campaign Romney has been running in which he essentially attacks President Obama on every issue and says his business experience is the solution to every problem.

But it also could complicate Obama’s run; he has many friends and allies among the “1 percent.”

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr