The president's campaign has begun a drive to define Mitt Romney's economic policies -- and to move on from the fight over gay marriage.
The Obama campaign is moving to focus the presidential debate on the economy -- and to frame it in a way that makes Mitt Romney a clear villain. A two-minute ad airing in mostly Rust Belt swing states and a standalone website, RomneyEconomics.com, aim to transform the president's biggest weakness into a his rival's. That Obama would attack Romney on his private-equity experience was never in doubt. The question is how and when the campaign would do it.
First, the how. In large part, the ad, titled "Steel," is a no-brainer, telling the story of GST Steel, a Kansas City company bought by Bain Capital in 1993 and closed in 2001 after entering bankruptcy. Bain made a profit of more than $12 million on the company, but 750 people lost jobs and pensions. The video features friendly, hard-working, older men who look like your father or uncle or brother-in-law, and it relies almost entirely on their first-person testimony, avoiding heavy-handed, ominous voiceovers such as those featured in the "King of Bain" documentary that a Newt Gingrich-aligned super PAC used against Romney during the Republican primary. The Obama campaign has to walk a fine line on the matter. When Romney's GOP rivals attacked his experience at Bain, they were quickly tarred by other conservatives as being against the free market; the ads seem to have hurt Romney's overall favorability, but the backlash hurt Romney's critics, too. "Steel" focuses on the individuals and how they were hurt; it emphasizes not just the plant closure, but the employees' loss of pension. Nonetheless, Obama ally Steve Rattner -- a frequent Romney critic -- called the ad "unfair" Monday morning, an indication of the delicate balancing act facing the campaign. The length of the ad also reflects the Obama campaign's belief that ads longer than the standard 30-second spot tend to connect better with voters.
RomneyEconomics.com, along with ad, make a simple argument: that Romney wants to make the election about the economy, but his vision is to lay off American workers and redistribute wealth upward. Is that attack fair? There's obviously a difference between the way a corporate executive -- with primary responsibility to shareholders -- and an elected official -- accountable to voters -- acts. On the other hand, Romney has made his experience in the private sector central to his argument, saying it taught him how to create jobs, a crucial skill with the unemployment rate hovering around 8 percent. As deputy Obama campaign manager Stephanie Cutter put in on a conference call Monday morning, "Since Romney's central premise is that he's an economic wizard, it's interesting to see what that premise is all about." (In a previous ad, Obama attacked Romney's economic record as governor of Massachusetts, too.)
The Romney campaign argues that the ad is misleading because the GST Steel closed in 2001, two years after Romney left the company. That's true, although it's unclear how winning an argument it is: There are ample cases of similar stories at Bain, and the website emphasizes how Bain "cut corners" and loaded the company with debt even before Romney's departure. Cutter said on Monday, "He set this in motion; it was his structure that was put in place, and he still was listed as either the CEO or president of the company. He was still making profits off this deal."
Interestingly, however, the Romney campaign's primary response emphasized not the timeline or even Romney's broader record at Bain, but instead focused on painting Obama as a "crony capitalist" -- a Sarah Palin critique of Washington that's since been picked up by many Republicans: "President Obama has many questions to answer as to why his administration used the stimulus to reward wealthy campaign donors with taxpayer money for bad ideas like Solyndra, but 23 million Americans are still struggling to find jobs." By focusing as much or more on the failed green tech company, Romney is practically conceding the Obama team's arguments.
The new ad comes after a week in which the political discussion was centered around Barack Obama's endorsement of gay marriage. That stance is a potential liability for the president in swing states: In four of the five states where "Steel" will air (Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, and Pennsylvania), civil gay marriage is banned by state constitutional amendments. An ad that focuses on Rust Belt concerns helps to distract from the social issue question. Meanwhile, it answers Republican critics who complained that Obama was avoiding conversation about the economy -- and it puts Romney on the defensive.
The question is whether Obama can convince voters that Romney's business record from two decades ago is more disqualifying than his own unpopular record on the economy. Obama holds an edge on the Republican in a variety of categories, but Romney consistently leads him on handling of the economy. But the president doesn't have to win the argument on the economy; he just has to make sure Romney doesn't win it.