It was simply the next logical step, anticipated for nearly a week since President Obama made an inartful gaffe from the White House podium. The private sector, he said, was “doing fine,” but the public sector could use some work.
Romney and the Republican party quickly pounced, putting the quote on an auto-loop and in campaign materials to portray the president as wholly out of touch, and an untrustworthy steward of the economic recovery.
But campaigns are about contrasts and to the candidate who can draw the biggest contrast between sound thinking and utter foolishness usually go the spoils. Which is why Mitt Romney repackaged the Obama quote in a new ad released Thursday and appearing on TV in half a dozen swing states.
The ad showcases a series of negative employment statistics: 23 million Americans don’t have jobs; unemployment has stubbornly stayed above 8 percent for more than three years; problems associated with underwater mortgages continue to mount.
Obama’s response, the ad asks? You guessed it. “The private sector is doing fine.”
The implicit message the Romney campaign wants to get across is that Obama simply can’t govern with such a naïve view. And Romney, by contrast, with his seasoned business experience running a successful company, can.
Considering Obama’s poor choice of words in that moment – the private sector, by any objective measure, is not doing fine – the ad is a clean hit. Just as Romney has made statements that, taken as snippets, indict a recklessness or even foolishness (“I like being able to fire people,” or “corporations are people,” to name two), Obama stepped in the cable news and Twitter trap. The damage may have been inadvertent, but it’s also on the record and irreversible.
Yet as with anything, context matters, and Romney’s ad doesn’t go out of its way to parse Obama’s actual intent. The president did, after all, clarify his statement about two hours later in the Oval Office during a bilateral meeting. “Listen,” he said. “It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine. That's the reason I had the press conference.”
Aides, seeking to clean up the mess, argued to reporters that Obama didn’t suggest the private sector, in its entirety, is just peachy and fully recovered. He was saying, officials claimed, that compared to unacceptable public sector job growth in local governments and municipalities that private sector upticks were continuing apace.
It isn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last time during the campaign that a quote is ballooned to oversized importance to trap an opponent. But as Obama’s aides scramble, some in the campaign’s orbit privately admit that at least this ad was honest. In one ad last fall, Romney’s campaign blatantly misattributed a quote from Obama, effectively reversing his actual statement.
But politics is also about maintaining hold of the narrative. As Romney tries to drill Obama and raise money off of the president’s six-word quote last week, the White House is more interested in changing the subject. Obama will travel to Ohio today, an obvious and central swing state, to reboot his campaign. The speech, aides say, won’t be bashful about taking a swing at Romney.