In doing so, his campaign repeated assertions widely condemned by Democrats and independent fact-checkers as inaccurate. Is Mr. Romney unfairly misrepresenting the administration’s record in this area?
Romney’s claims are a “drastic distortion” of planned changes to the existing Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, according to PolitiFact.com. The website gave the charges its lowest rating, “Pants on Fire."
First, a little background: The presidential campaign is suddenly mired in a swamp of dubious assertions, half-truths, and unfair conflations.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s statement that Mitt Romney may have paid no taxes for 10 years leads the way here. Senator Reid has sourced his information to an unnamed Bain Capital investor, but he has refused to provide any further evidence for this explosive charge, or to release any further tax information of his own.
On Tuesday, the pro-Obama "super PAC" Priorities USA Action released a harsh ad dealing with GST Steel. Purchased by Romney’s Bain Capital in 1993, the firm went bankrupt in 2001. In the ad, ex-GST worker Joe Soptic notes that he lost his health insurance as a result of the failure, and that his wife later died of cancer.
The ad makes no mention of the fact that Romney says he had left Bain two years prior to GST’s collapse, that Mr. Soptic’s wife had her main health insurance through her own employer, or that she passed away in 2006.
In this context, on Tuesday Romney went after the Obama administration on welfare, a hot-button issue of the 1980s.
Romney’s campaign released an ad titled “Right Choice” that opened with then-President Bill Clinton signing the landmark 1996 welfare reform act. The narrator notes that the historic bill “helped end welfare as we know it by requiring work for welfare."
It then continues by saying that on July 12 President Obama announced a plan to “gut welfare reform” by dropping work and job-training requirements. “They just send you your welfare check,” says the narrator.
What the Obama administration has actually done, noted PolitiFact.com, is to say that the Department of Health and Human Services will consider waivers allowing the states to try new ways of meeting the work requirements.
An example of a project that might qualify for a waiver includes an effort to “improve collaboration with the workforce and/or post-secondary education systems," notes an HHS memo. (Yes, as PolitiFact notes, that’s fairly vague bureaucratic language.)
Critics of the move, such as the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, say the real result of the change will be to undo work rules. And the Romney team wasn’t backing down on Wednesday, with spokeswoman Andrew Saul saying in a press release that “it took years for President Clinton and Republicans in Congress to pass historic welfare reforms – but it only took President Obama an instant to undo the legislation’s historic work requirements."
The administration’s defenders, meanwhile, say the real point of the attack is to revive the welfare-queen meme of the 1980s.
“The claim that Obama is quietly bringing back the old welfare system is perfectly designed to bring back the old politics of the 1980s, when Republicans constantly (and often successfully) sought to pit middle-class voters against the poor, while distracting attention from the vast welfare system supporting corporations and the wealthy,” wrote Ed Kilgore on the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog.
Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama "super PAC," has released a tough new ad targeting Mitt Romney’s time at Bain Capital. It’s so tough, in fact, that it may be the harshest spot yet of the 2012 presidential election cycle.
Republicans might use other words to describe it, such as “unfair” or even “vicious.” Has Priorities USA Action gone too far?
The ad, titled “Understands,” focuses on Bain’s investment in GST Steel, a now-shuttered Kansas City firm that’s been featured in the Obama campaign’s own ads. Bain acquired the specialty metals firm in 1993. It went bankrupt in 2001, at a time when cheap foreign imports were hitting US steel firms hard overall.
The spot starts by splashing on-screen the statement, “Mitt Romney and Bain Capital made millions for themselves and then closed this steel plant.” Former GST worker Joe Soptic then tells the story of how he lost his job and his family health insurance. Subsequently his wife, who had cancer, passed away.
“I do not think Mitt Romney realizes what he’s done to anyone. Furthermore, I do not think Mitt Romney is concerned,” Mr. Soptic concludes.
Ouch. Soptic’s story is a sad one, to be sure. The ad is carefully cut, with words that lay out the sequence of events and Soptic’s opinion of the presumptive GOP nominee’s lack of empathy. But the former steelworker basically is charging that Mr. Romney’s actions caused his wife’s death. Nor does the ad mention that Romney claims to have left Bain two years prior to GST’s bankruptcy, to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. Thus it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that the super PAC spot caused the conservative Twittersphere to erupt in anger.
“Post-partisanship, healing, and Mitt Romney killed a woman by firing her husband,” he tweeted a few minutes later.
Democrats responded that the ad charges Romney not with murder, but with obliviousness. And that, they say, is a fair charge to make against a buyout specialist who put profit before the effects of his policies on people.
“This is about more than just driving up Romney’s negatives. It’s also about establishing a picture of Romney that will make voters more receptive to the coming attacks on his policies and the priorities they embody,” wrote Greg Sargent on his liberal Plum Line blog at The Washington Post.
It may also be about something else: driving down voter turnout.
The Obama campaign’s populist Bain ads have been aimed squarely at what used to be called Reagan Democrats, wrote conservative blogger Ross Douthat in The New York Times on Tuesday. This voting sector is older, whiter, and more blue-collar. It’s socially conservative but suspicious of big business and more sympathetic to government safety-net efforts than most GOP voters.
President Obama won’t win this segment of the voting population. But he may be able to make many of them so disgusted with both candidates that they just stay home in November.
That’s Mr. Douthat’s theory, anyway.
“There’s nothing particularly unusual about this kind of strategy .... Still, it says something about how far we’ve come from ‘hope and change’ that the president’s re-election hopes may depend on making a struggling, disaffected and perpetually-disappointed bloc of American voters even more disaffected than ever,” he writes.
Sunday’s tragic shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin has raised anew, at home and abroad, the issue of Americans’ ready access to firearms.
In the United States, gun control advocates redoubled their rhetoric on Monday. The killings in suburban Milwaukee, coming so soon after the July 20th mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, show yet again why the nation needs a new political conversation about gun restrictions, they said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg tweeted that “the people who want to run this country need to tell us their plan to end gun violence,” for instance. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence issued a statement asserting that there have now been 61 mass shootings since the attack in Tucson, Ariz., last year in which then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded and six others killed.
“The American people from across the political spectrum are calling for solutions. We know that we are better than this. It is time for our elected officials and presidential candidates to show us that they know it too,” read the statement.
Meanwhile, in the Kashmir region of India, an area with a large Sikh population, protesters blocked a national highway while carrying banners calling for stricter US gun control laws, according to wire service accounts. Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna, asked about the gun culture of the US, said that while he did not mean to interfere in another nation’s domestic affairs, Americans “will have to certainly take a comprehensive look at this kind of [gun culture] tendency, which certainly is not going to bring credit to the United States.”
Will such calls result in a new move to pass gun control legislation in America? It is possible, but given the current political climate, it is also unlikely.
“We’re still awaiting the outcome of a full investigation,” said Obama , adding that “all of us are heartbroken by what happened”, according to the pool report.
The president said such events happen with “too much regularity,” and that he would “examine additional ways to reduce violence,” but stopped short of calling for new gun-control laws, according to pool reporters.
White House spokesman Jay Carney elaborated a bit on this issue, saying Obama “believes that we have a broader issue with violence in America that needs to be addressed from a variety of angles, including efforts that this administration has undertaken to work with local communities, to try to get children out of gangs ... to get kids back in school, working with local law enforcement in their efforts to fight crime.”
Pressed on the issue, Mr. Carney added that Obama will “continue to instruct his administration to take action towards common-sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens but make it harder and harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law to obtain them.”
This noncommittal response reflects a broader political reality: Americans are deeply split about the prospect of new gun laws, and tragic events such as the recent mass killings do not change voter opinions.
A recent Pew Research Center survey noted that in the wake of the Aurora shootings there was little change in the public view of gun control issues.
“Currently, 47 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 46 percent say it is more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns. This is virtually unchanged from a survey earlier this year in April, when 45 percent prioritized gun control and 49 percent gun rights,” said the July 30th study.
Similarly, there was little change in public attitudes following the Tucson shootings and following the shootings at Virginia Tech University in April, 2007, according to Pew.
However, focusing on the narrow issue of whether the US needs more gun control laws or greater protection of Second Amendment rights may miss some important trends regarding guns and violence.
According to an analysis of the issue from New York University political scientist Patrick Egan, recent mass shooting events are anomalies.
“First, we are a less violent nation now than we’ve been in over forty years,” wrote Egan in a post on the Monkey Cage political blog in the wake of the Aurora tragedy.
Violent crime rates are now lower than at any time since 1972, according to Egan. Murder rates have declined to levels not seen since the administration of John F. Kennedy.
“Second, for all the attention given to America’s culture of guns, ownership of firearms is at or near all-time lows,” writes Egan.
In the 1970s, about half of respondents to national polls said they kept firearms in their homes. Today that corresponding percentage is about one-third. And as Egan notes, the biggest drop has occurred in ownership of handguns and shotguns, the weapons most likely to be used in violent crimes. This may explain why public appetite for gun control has waned in recent decades.
Wade Michael Page, the gunman who killed six people inside a Sikh temple in Wisconsin on Sunday, had ties to white supremacist organizations, according to wire service reports and a nonprofit group that tracks hate crimes in the US.
If that connection is true, was the attack an act of domestic terrorism? That is how local police are describing the murders, and on those grounds the FBI has been called in to investigate the crime.
“While the FBI is investigating whether this matter might be an act of domestic terrorism, no motive has been determined at this time,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Teresa Carlson on Sunday.
IN PICTURES: Sikhs around the world
According to the Associated Press, Wade Michael Page was a 40-year-old Army veteran who joined the Army in 1992 and was discharged in 1998. Page walked into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in suburban Milwaukee and began shooting as several dozen people prepared for Sunday services. At the end, seven people lay dead, including Page, who was shot to death by police.
Page was known to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist organizations. On Tuesday SPLC researcher Mark Potok described him as a frustrated neo-Nazi who was the leader of a racist, white-power band.
In 2010, Page appears to have given an interview to a white supremacist website regarding his music. His band’s name, “End Apathy," was meant to reflect his desire to “figure out how to end people’s apathetic ways," he said.
Page told the website he had attended white-power concerts throughout the US. According to the SPLC, in 2000 he had also tried to purchase unnamed items from the National Alliance, then one of the most important neo-Nazi hate groups in the nation.
Since 2000, hate groups have been surging in the nation, claims the SPLC, increasing by 69 percent.
“This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president,” writes the group.
Domestic terrorism is defined as violence within the United States intended to influence, intimidate, or coerce both the population and the government, according to the language of the USA Patriot Act. If alleged attacker Page meant the shootings at the Sikh temple to “end apathy” in some manner known only to him, it would appear that those actions indeed qualify under this definition.
Most Americans may think of Islamic extremism when they hear the word “terrorism.” However, as the tragedy in Wisconsin unfortunately highlights, the vast majority of these attacks in the US are carried out by non-Islamic American extremists.
“Many law enforcement groups, like the FBI, use the labels of domestic terrorism and violent extremism interchangeably,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relations in a 2011 study on the subject.
To provide some context, the National Counter Terrorism Center does not list the United States among the top 15 nations afflicted by terrorism worldwide.
Unsurprisingly, nations roiled by wider conflicts top that list, with Afghanistan and Iraq ranking at the top of both numbers of attacks and terrorism deaths. In Afghanistan last year, more than 3,300 people were killed by some 2,800 terrorist attacks, according to the NCTC 2011 annual report.
IN PICTURES: Sikhs around the world
Suddenly, Mitt Romney is talking tough.
In a radio interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday, Mr. Romney was asked about Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s allegations that an unnamed Bain Capital investor had told him that Mr. Romney had not paid any taxes for 10 years.
Romney’s response: Senator Reid should “put up or shut up.”
Yes, the famously straight-laced GOP nominee – who, in what we’re sure is a massive coincidence, was recently labeled a “wimp” on the cover of Newsweek – is now using lines reminiscent of a Clint Eastwood movie.
At least he didn’t say “shove it” or “kiss my [posterior]” (that was just his press aide).
Still, it made us squirm a little.
Not because Romney’s choice of words violated any sort of political decorum. These days, politicians routinely use far saltier language than that, and often the public seems to like it. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s blunt retorts – such as calling an opponent "an arrogant S.O.B." or telling coastal residents resisting a hurricane evacuation to “get the hell off the beach” – are widely seen as part of his appeal. Vice President Joe Biden famously dropped an f-bomb (albeit when he thought he couldn’t be heard) at the signing ceremony for the president’s health-care reform bill.
Romney’s not even the first politician to use “put up or shut up.” In late 2010, Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia used the phrase on the Senate floor, talking about the need to address the debt crisis (though he added “excuse the language”). And former British Prime Minister John Major may be forever associated with the phrase, which he uttered at a press conference in 1995, daring opponents from his own party to try to topple him.
It’s just that it seemed, well, out of character for Romney.
Tellingly, Romney didn’t deliver the line with anything even approaching genuine outrage. Listening to the tone of his voice, he could have been talking about his lawn furniture. Or the weather. Right before he said it, he emitted the same nervous chuckle that he makes whenever an interviewer brings up a topic he doesn’t like (a laugh that James Lipton, host of "Inside the Actor’s Studio," called “inert” and “mirthless.”)
It’s too bad, because this was a moment when Romney could have shown some real emotion. Reid has come under fire for making his accusation – which he first offered up in an interview with the Huffington Post – based on information from a sole source that he refused to name. In the same interview, Reid even acknowledged he was “not certain” it was true.
Even “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart – generally not a big Romney defender – called it a cheap shot: “You’re the Senate majority leader! You can’t just run to the Sideboob Gazette with ridiculous speculations about what may or may not be in Mitt Romney’s taxes!”
But instead of scripted rejoinders, what voters really need to hear from Romney is some sort of heartfelt response. It doesn't have to be snappy; it just has to be honest.
It’s telling that, at a point in the race when he most needs to let the public know who he really is, Romney seems to be doing the opposite. Instead of finding his voice, Romney keeps borrowing someone else’s.
When a political campaign plays out on a smart phone, it can sometimes feel, for lack of a better word, small.
On Tuesday, both the Romney and Obama campaigns unveiled new smart-phone apps, highlighting the growing importance of mobile devices in campaign communications.
For what it’s worth, the Romney app – promising early notification of the candidate’s running-mate selection – quickly jumped to a sizable lead in downloads over the Obama app. According to iTunes, the Romney app as of Wednesday morning was No. 15 among free apps, while President Obama’s languished at No. 149. (No. 1 was NBC’s Olympics app, for those who are wondering.)
It may be a sign of greater enthusiasm among Romney supporters. Or it may simply point to the value of a gimmick.
The Romney app, called “Mitt’s VP,” will supposedly be the place breaking the news of Mitt Romney’s running-mate pick, notifying users via an alert – though whether it actually plays out this way remains to be seen. Notably, the Obama campaign in 2008 tried virtually the exact same gimmick with texting, but the news wound up being leaked to the media well before the official text message went out to supporters.
The app will have no ostensible purpose after the vice-presidential selection is announced (which will probably happen sometime before the Republican convention starts at the end of August). But it encourages users to follow the campaign on Twitter and connect on Facebook, and it conveniently gives the campaign a way to track its supporters, who must enter their name, e-mail, phone number, and address.
The Obama app, by contrast, is more complex, and more of a grass-roots mobilizing tool. It helps users find campaign events in their area and gives them an easy, one-touch way to volunteer, make phone calls, and canvass, as well as receive the latest communications from the campaign.
Obviously, to the extent either of these apps helps the campaigns connect with supporters, they’re useful. In 2008, the Obama team was truly groundbreaking in the ways it employed technology; since then, Americans’ reliance on smart phones has increased exponentially, creating even more opportunities for campaigns to communicate with voters.
Still, we can’t help wondering: Who is actually downloading these apps (besides reporters, who have to)? And while we generally consider anything that makes it easier for voters to get involved a good thing, it’s pretty clear the smart-phone campaign has come with some less positive side effects, too.
There’s been a general agreement among the media that the 2012 campaign is not only entering new territory when it comes to technology – but also when it comes to triviality (despite the very serious challenges facing America). Much of the blame has been placed on the fact that social-media communication tends to thrive on cheap shots and ginned-up controversies. It’s fun, but shallow: After all, who can really discuss policy in 140 characters?
This week, BuzzFeed posted a telling screen-shot comparison of subject lines in Obama campaign e-mails from 2008 and 2012. In the 2008 lineup were headings like “Strategy briefing,” “June numbers,” and “Our platform.” In 2012, by contrast, messages went out with the subject lines: “Warning: This picture is cute,” “You’ll need to comb your hair for this,” and “So cool.”
Sure, that may reflect the Obama campaign’s need to distract from the bad economy. But it’s hard to see how an “LOL campaign” that focuses on gimmicks and gaffes will give voters any more confidence in their leaders.
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New York City is chock-a-block full of neighborhoods recognizable by people far outside the city: There's SoHo and "the Village," Hell's Kitchen and, of course, Wall Street. Now, President Obama arrives for a Big Apple fundraiser in NoMad.
NoMad, you ask? Is that a real place?
Even some New Yorkers scratch their heads.
“NoMad – they call it that?” asks the bartender at the Ace Hotel, which many credit with giving some cachet to a neighborhood north of Madison Square that until recently was a no-name district of wholesale shops for jewelry, perfume, luggage, and T-shirts. The hotel is filled with well-dressed young people, working (mostly on Macbook laptops) and, later in the day, having drinks.
“I’d say we’re in Flatiron, or Midtown,” says a hostess at the Ace. “But yeah, some people say NoMad. I think that’s a real estate thing though.”
Manhattan has few places without a defined name, identity, and history. But the president’s stop at the NoMad Hotel Monday evening, which should net him about $2.4 million (with 60 guests paying $40,000 a head), appears to have landed him in one of those neighborhoods.
The NoMad Hotel at 28th and Broadway, named for its location north of Madison Square Park, opened earlier this year. It may well be the hippest spot so far for a presidential shindig – and one that helps to give an identity to a part of the borough that most people view as a blank.
“Until about five years ago it was sort of a grey area on the map, because it hadn’t had a kind of identity of its own,” says Richard Falk, communications director for Kew Management, a company that owns and operates buildings in the area. The area – south of Midtown, north of Union Square, east of Chelsea – was first referred to as NoMad in 1999, but the name has started to stick during the past year or two, as more hotels and restaurants have moved into the neighborhood, says Mr. Falk.
In the early 20th century, many families had lived in the area, attracted by proximity to the park, but most had moved on by the mid-1900s.
The district's latest incarnation began when real estate developer Andrew Zobler opened the Ace Hotel in 2009. Then, in 2010, Mario Batali’s Eataly –essentially an amusement park of Italian food – opened across from Madison Square Park, pulling in visitors from all over the city. This year, the NoMad Hotel joined the bunch. It features a restaurant run by chef Daniel Humm and restaurateur Will Guidara, who also run the three-Michelan-starred restaurant Eleven Madison Park, winner of the 2011 James Beard award for “outstanding restaurant in America.”
As for the coining of the name NoMad, it follows the trend of many neighborhoods. When it's time to rebrand the area, trendy acronyms have become the way to go, all over the country.
In New York, it started with Soho in 1963. That was followed up by Tribeca, Nolita, and others. Realtors copied the trend in a bid to make areas seem more appealing to buyers: Some agencies list homes in Spanish Harlem as Spaha.
But will NoMad stick?
A New York Magazine story in 2010 asked whether a neighborhood could be created by giving it a trendy acronym, especially if there were no community in place to support it.
“As of now, NoMad is defined, appropriately, by its nonresidents; specifically, its hotels,” wrote author Adam Sternbergh.
Sounds about right.
In an interview with ABC News over the weekend, in the course of defending his decision not to release any more tax returns, Mitt Romney may have unintentionally thrown a little more fuel on the fire – by revealing that he has been audited. And possibly more than once.
Here’s what Mr. Romney said:
“From time to time, I’ve been audited as happens, I think, to other citizens as well. And the accounting firm which prepares my taxes has done a very thorough and complete job,” Romney said, adding: “I don’t pay more [taxes] than are legally due, and frankly, if I had paid more than are legally due, I don't think I'd be qualified to become president. I'd think people would want me to follow the law and pay only what the tax code requires.”
To be clear: Merely being audited does not in any way imply wrongdoing. And Romney is right that he’s hardly the only citizen to go through it: The Internal Revenue Service says it audits about 1 out of every 8 taxpayers who report more than $1 million in income. That meant that the IRS conducted more than 1.5 million audits in fiscal year 2011.
Still, it’s not an experience most Americans can readily relate to. And we’d wager that the Romney audits were a little more complicated than most.
Reporters have been wondering about Romney's possible audit history for some time. Just last week, Mother Jones ran a piece that questioned whether Romney could be targeted by a task force that the IRS created in 2009 to audit high-wealth individuals who “make use of sophisticated financial, business, and investment arrangements with complicated legal structures and tax consequences” – a description that, the article noted, sounds a lot like Romney.
So far, the task force has audited 36 individuals and found that 24 of them had not, in fact, paid all the taxes they actually owed: “Out of the 36 high-wealth individuals audited in fiscal 2011 and the first five months of fiscal 2012, the IRS discovered an extra $47 million in taxes that should have been paid by 24 people in that group.”
While it’s clear that over the weekend, Romney brought up his audits as a way of implying that his tax forms have been thoroughly scrutinized by the government – and passed muster – he did not explicitly say whether he ever wound up having to pay any penalties or additional taxes as a result of those audits.
So far, the Romney campaign isn't offering much more.
“Mitt Romney has been scrupulous about observing the requirements of the tax code. Mitt Romney is in full compliance with U.S. law and he has paid 100 percent of what he has owed,” campaign spokesman Ryan Williams told Business Insider.
Likewise, MSNBC’s First Read reported: “The Romney campaign will not say what year he was audited – only that he was found to be in compliance and that the audit took place more than 10 years ago.” (Which strikes us as odd, since Romney, in the ABC News interview, clearly seemed to be referencing more than one audit when he said, “From time to time, I’ve been audited.”)
It all raises more questions than it answers – and may put even more pressure on the candidate to release more of his tax returns.
IN PICTURES: On the campaign trail with Mitt Romney
Once again, it’s personality versus performance.
The overarching dynamic that has come to define the 2012 campaign is neatly encapsulated in this week’s developments: Just as bad news on the economic front threatens to imperil President Obama’s bid for reelection, Mitt Romney finds a way to remind voters why they don’t like him.
Mr. Romney’s “European Vacation” hasn’t culminated in the destruction of Stonehenge (yet). But already, the candidate is rivaling actor Chevy Chase in his clueless ability to insult and offend. First, Romney had to clear up remarks in the British press from an anonymous “advisor” who claimed that the former Massachusetts governor had a better appreciation of the two countries’ “Anglo-Saxon heritage” than the president. And then, in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC News, Romney suggested that London wasn’t prepared for the Olympic Games, citing concerns about logistics and security.
The British tabloid The Sun put it succinctly: “Mitt the Twit.”
Ironically, Romney’s trip abroad was supposed to be a breather from the daily drama of the campaign trail – a kind of extended photo-op, where the former Olympics head could drop by the 2012 Games and hold some noncontroversial meetings with a few top US allies.
Instead, it has been a nonstop gaffe machine.
And here’s the thing that must be driving the Romney folks up a wall: It has all come at precisely a moment when Romney had one of his best opportunities yet to seize the advantage in this race.
Recently, Mr. Obama made what may prove to be his biggest gaffe of the campaign cycle, with his “you didn’t build that” comment. Although it’s pretty clear in context that the president was referring to roads and bridges, not businesses, the remarks had a dismissive tone that infuriated many small business owners. It gave the Romney campaign an obvious opening to attack the president as being on the side of government rather than free enterprise. Republicans have already cut several ads featuring the line, and the Romney campaign has been holding “We Did Build It” events around the country with small business owners.
But driving a message with surrogates doesn’t have the same effect when the candidate himself is out of the country, putting his foot in his mouth.
Likewise, Romney should be using this moment to focus attention on new signs of weakness in the US economy: Economic growth is slowing, and polls show that voter attitudes about the economy are increasingly pessimistic.
As we wrote a few days ago, the fact that polls show Obama is still even with or slightly ahead of Romney at a time when voters are growing more and more gloomy about their economic future seems almost gravity-defying. The main factor that seems to be preventing Romney from taking the lead is likability – where he trails Obama by an eye-popping 20 points, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The past two days aren’t going to do anything to improve that number.
Think you could be president? Play Gaffe Dodger: The presidential election game
According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, President Obama has widened his lead over rival Mitt Romney. He’s now six points ahead (49 to 43 percent nationwide), up from a three-point lead (47 to 44 percent) last month.
In the key swing states, Mr. Obama’s doing even better. NBC/WSJ has him leading by eight points in the top 12 battlegrounds.
This is good news for the president. So why does it feel as if he’s in a tougher spot than he’s been in for much of the campaign?
Well, the poll shows Obama’s negatives are up, as are Mr. Romney’s – a result of the attack ads that both sides have been running. Even there, however, the numbers look worse for Romney, who, the poll points out, would be the only modern nominee to have a “net negative” favorability rating (meaning more people view him unfavorably than favorably).
No, the really scary poll number for Obama is this one: Only 27 percent of voters think the economy will improve over the next year. That’s down eight points from last month. And that level of economic pessimism is very dangerous for an incumbent.
In fact, it seems almost incredible – the political equivalent of defying gravity – for Obama to have gained ground in the horse race even as Americans’ views on the economy have grown increasingly, alarmingly, sour.
The question is whether Obama can continue to defy gravity like this all the way to November. Given the strikingly strong levels of dislike for Romney – who trails Obama by 20 points on likability in the poll – the president may still be able to stay on top. But we can’t imagine it will continue to be this easy.
In coming days, Obama will have to deal with yet another jobs report that’s likely to be less than inspiring – and this time, he may not be able to turn the media focus onto Romney’s business record and taxes as an alternate story line. And the Obama campaign is clearly still worried about fallout from the president's "you didn't build that" gaffe – as evidenced by the fact that they’ve released a new ad directly addressing it. (Note: When the president has to say in a commercial, “Of course Americans build their own businesses,” that’s not a good sign.)
Obama’s also going to be competing more and more with the “veepstakes” frenzy, as speculation about Romney’s running mate mounts, giving the Romney campaign plenty of free – and probably mostly positive – media.
And who knows what sort of “October (or September or August) surprise” may lie ahead to complicate things further for the president.
A few other interesting tidbits from the NBC/WSJ poll:
- Obama is getting more blame than Romney for running a negative campaign – with 22 percent saying he is, versus 12 percent saying Romney is (though 34 percent fault both candidates).
- It looks as if Romney has made some progress when it comes to one aspect of his image – “flip-flopping.” Last fall, Obama held a 14-point lead over Romney on “being consistent and standing up for his beliefs.” Today, that lead has shrunk to just two points (Romney has gained ground and the president has lost it).
- The percentage of voters who regard Obama’s health-care law as a “good idea” has reached its highest point yet, at 40 percent (though that still trails those who regard it as a “bad idea,” at 44 percent). Thirty-one percent now feel “strongly” that it was a good idea, up from 25 percent last month.
IN PICTURES: On the campaign trail with Mitt Romney