Michael Tomasky on Obama’s Gaffe and How His Campaign Lost Its Groove

The president’s press-conference gaffe wouldn’t have been so painful if he didn’t seem so lost.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

Well, let’s just say Barack Obama hasn’t been on his game this week. The Friday-morning stumble at the press conference—“The private sector is doing fine”—is going to live on in thousands of 30-second attack ads. But that isn’t the biggest problem by a long shot. In fact, it merely draws attention to his biggest problem, which Eleanor Clift nicely identified in her Friday column: the campaign isn’t telling a story. And there is a story to tell, even about the private sector. It’s a slightly more complicated story than the one Mitt Romney is telling, and more complicated means harder, but it doesn’t mean impossible. The story, in a nutshell, is this: we inherited a total disaster, things are getting better, and Romney will bring us back to disaster. The last part is the most important: putting the emphasis back on the challenger.

About the gaffe, there’s no question that it was bad, and liberals and Democrats shouldn’t be complaining that it’s unfair that so much be made of it. If Romney had said it, the liberal blogosphere would be hooting and howling, me included. So conservatives are entitled to their fun on this one. At the same time, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are correct to point out that private-sector job growth has been substantial since 2010. Yglesias’s chart shows that since the beginning of 2010, private-sector jobs have grown substantially (although they are not up to pre-recession levels, back in early 2008). Klein explains that Obama is now in the black on private-sector job creation, to the tune of 780,000 jobs. That’s bouncing back, getting stronger, any number of formulations. But it isn’t “fine.” A jobless rate of 8.2 percent isn’t fine, and even accepting that it would be 7-point-whatever if the Republicans weren’t forcing all these public-sector layoffs, that’s not really fine either.

But the media overplay these things. I’m reading comparisons to John McCain’s infamous “The fundamentals of the economy are still strong.” Could be. But even so, that comment really didn’t end up hurting McCain that much. What hurt him was that silliness of suspending his campaign to ride to the rescue. And Sarah Palin, of course. No one voted against him because of that utterance (which, interestingly, was made in the context of calling for greater bank regulation—those were the days, eh?).

Anyway, the bigger problem with Obama’s press conference was that there wasn’t any news in Obama’s prepared remarks. This really makes me shake my head. If you’re going to call a press conference, you have to give beat reporters something new. New is the root of news. If you don’t say something new, a misstatement is bound to dominate, or an answer to an off-message question. In this case, his response on the national-security leaks would have probably led the stories—as it did Daniel Stone’s Beast report. Not as bad as a gaffe, from the spin-room point of view, but also not what they wanted to put out there.

At bottom, then, the press conference reflected the general drift that Clift described. The White House doesn’t have an argument right now. Ever since the jobs report, Romney’s got all the momentum. The White House has tried but then dropped arguments, as I wrote earlier this week, and it sounds a little whiny and ineffectual when Obama urges Congress to pass something that everybody knows Congress isn’t going to pass. And by the way, he ought at least to say “Republicans,” not “Congress.” I’m sure there are risks associated with sounding too partisan, but to me, he has little choice but to lump Romney and the GOP Congress together.

That is a crucial part of the story Obama needs to tell. Romney’s story is easy. The economy is bad, he’s had four years, it’s his fault. Boom. Simple. Obama’s story takes longer to tell and goes something like this: “We inherited a disaster from George Bush (yes, he should use the name—people still do not like him). We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. But since early 2010, we’ve been gaining, and we’ve now created more private-sector jobs than were lost early in my term. So things are turning around. But if you elect Mitt Romney, with his promised huge tax cuts for the wealthy and his support for Paul Ryan’s extreme budget, which are both even more right wing than anything Bush tried, we’re going right back off the cliff that I’ve steered us away from.”

Obama sort of did that Friday morning, but not really. He limited his case to public-sector employees. Romney countered later in the day by mocking the idea that states and localities could use more cops, firefighters, and teachers. Romney hasn’t been making many unforced errors lately, but I think that was one. People want those workers to contribute more to their pensions, but that’s a different question from whether people want them around. Romney was overinterpreting the Wisconsin result there, and in the states that matter, it may yet end up being today’s bigger gaffe.

But be that as it may, the fact is that the Obama campaign is in a hole right now, and until they figure out how to tell a story that makes Romney answer some questions, it’s going to get deeper. When you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense.