President Obama at his press conference on Friday said that “the private sector is doing fine” when discussing US economic prospects. Republicans quickly slammed him for underplaying the nation’s job woes.
Later in the day, Mr. Obama qualified his statement, saying "it is absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine." But as to his narrower point about the private sector, who is right? This happens to be a data-rich subject. Is the private sector OK or is it not?
Two points: 1) it depends what the meaning of the word “fine” is, and 2) it depends on how you judge the remark in its full context, which included Obama asserting that the real problem is a downturn in public sector, not private sector, employment.
As to the first point, Obama found few defenders on Friday who agreed that the private sector was fine, if by "fine" one means as healthy and vibrant as it ought to be. The numbers here are obvious. A bleak employment report last week showed that the US added 69,000 jobs in May, which was not enough to keep the unemployment rate from rising to 8.2 percent.
“Yes, the private sector is creating jobs – but not nearly enough to get back to normal unemployment,” wrote political scientist Jonathan Bernstein Friday on his A Plain Blog About Politics.
But if by “fine” you mean moving in the right direction, that’s a different story. The private sector is in positive jobs territory, having created an average of 160,000 jobs per month in 2012. It’s in positive territory for Obama’s time in office, as well. The US has created on net 780,000 private sector jobs since February of 2009, points out Ezra Klein on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.
“The private sector’s job creation machine is basically working, even if it would be nice to see it working faster,” Klein wrote on Friday.
The overall job numbers remain weak because public sector employment – federal, state, and local jobs – has actually been shrinking. Obama’s stimulus package contained $54 billion in aid to states to help them keep teachers, police, firefighters, and other less popular government bureaucrats in their posts. That money has now been spent and lay-offs due to government belt-tightening have accelerated.
“In the Bush era, the public sector had added nearly 1 million jobs. In the Obama era, it’s down 600,000 jobs and counting,” wrote Slate political blogger David Weigel Friday.
This brings us to point No. 2, context. The fuller text of Obama’s quote was this: “The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last ... 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by ... governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government.”
Replace “doing fine” with “growing,” and Obama’s quote becomes less controversial. But “fine” is in there, and Republicans pounced on the misstep, as Democrats have on some Romney statements that look worse when shorn of surrounding words. (Remember “I like firing people”?)
On the blog of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, editor James Pethokoukis wrote that job growth remains much lower than the 1983-84 Ronald Reagan economic recovery from recession. Private sector GDP rose just 2.6 percent in the first quarter of this year, and only 1.2 percent last year.
The stock market is down 7 percent since early April and real take-home pay is down over the past year.
“No, Mr. President, the private sector isn’t doing fine at all,” wrote Pethokoukis in response to Obama’s press conference remark.
"My question to the president would be: Are you kidding? Did you see the jobs numbers that came out last week?" House majority leader Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia told reporters. "The private sector is not doing fine."
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Later, the president walked back his remarks during a brief appearance with the president of the Philippines. "It is absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine,” Obama said.
But what, in fact, did Mr. Obama say and – retracted or not – how is it likely to play in the ongoing standoff with Republicans in Congress?
"We've created 4.3 million jobs over the last ... 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine," he said in a press conference Friday. "Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government, oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don't have the same kind of flexibility of the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in."
The latter half of the president's statement points to what Obama would like Congress to do to help support the economy: Pass his plan to provide more federal funding to state and local governments to hire or maintain public employees such as teachers and firefighters. But the chief thrust of his statement was to outline troubles in the European economy and how they are negatively affectng America's economic fortunes.
Republicans slammed Obama for not taking responsibility for ongoing economic turbulence.
Mr. Boehner said the House would be doing two things to help solve America's economic problems in coming weeks: voting to extend all the Bush tax cuts and moving to repeal the entirety of the president's signature health-care reform law.
Such actions would lift uncertainty in the US economy, said both Republican House leaders. The economy generated a meager 69,000 new jobs in May, and the US Labor Department recently revised prior months' gains downward.
Of course, just because both parties rattle their political sabres at each other about taking action doesn't mean anything significant will get done. Obama has insisted that the Bush tax cuts be extended only for those making less than $250,000 a year, while congressional Republicans insist on an extension of lower taxes for everyone. Obama pushes more federal funds for state and local governments, while Republicans argue the already $1 trillion-plus annual deficit can't stand any more spending.
With critical policy lines drawn so starkly – and elections pending – there's little prospect of a grand bargain on jobs or the economy, at least in the short term.
And so Obama's description of America's role vis-à-vis troubled European governments – "what we can do is to prod, advise, suggest" – goes for Republicans in Congress, as well. Both sides will do plenty of prodding and advising but, almost all observers agree, little compromising to get things done before November's elections.
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Mitt Romney and the Republican Party easily raised more cash in May than did President Obama and the Democrats, $76 million to $60 million, according to figures released Thursday by the presidential candidates’ campaigns.
It’s possible that this gap will appear narrower after the campaigns file official reports with the Federal Election Commission later this month. It’s unclear, for example, what percentage of Mr. Romney’s haul went to party committees that by law must spend some of their money on congressional elections.
But the $16 million gap remains large enough to call into question Mr. Obama’s reputation as the master fundraiser of the presidential race. And it cheered Republicans who have seen Romney quickly gather the party around him and begin to mount an aggressive general election campaign.
How did Romney do it? After all, in April the presumptive nominee’s campaign raised only about $11 million, to $25 million for Obama. (These figures don’t include party committees.)
For one thing, Romney’s actually pretty good at raking in campaign cash. With deep ties to the finance industry and a prosperous Mormon constituency, he was easily the richest of the GOP contenders throughout the long primary campaign.
Second, that primary campaign is over. The flow of Republican contributions had been divided among numerous candidates. That flow has now coalesced into a single stream pouring into Romney’s coffers. Without the need to contest the remaining primary states, Romney had lots of time to hold May fundraisers.
Third, Romney is benefitting from a rally-around effect. Now that he’s the obvious nominee, he has gained in the polls, reflecting his new, higher stature. Similarly, he’s received a burst of money from contributors who had yet to max out on legal limits. That’s a jolt of cash he may find hard to duplicate in coming months.
Looking ahead, the campaign will feature not just a battle of contrasting candidates, but also a battle of contrasting fundraising styles. Romney gets a much higher percentage of his money in the form of relatively large donations. Through April, only 10 percent of his contributions had come from small donors who gave $200 or less.
By contrast, 43 percent of Obama’s money through April came in increments of less than $200. This may mean he has a fundraising base to which he can continue to appeal, because many donors haven’t hit their $2,500 limit.
And as a coda here we’ll note that there is some question about how much this fundraising matters. Elections, particularly presidential elections, are not decided by the hurly-burly of fundraising and campaigns at all, many political scientists say.
As Jennifer Victor, a George Mason University political scientist, writes on the new political party blog Mischiefs of Faction, macroeconomic trends remain the best indicators of who wins presidential contests.
“Typically, the rate of change in third quarter GDP or unemployment are likely to be much better predictors of the election outcome than any amount spent by any group on campaigning,” writes Ms. Victor.
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“My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked,” Congressman Frank told The Hill on Wednesday.
Frank is retiring after 30+ years in Congress so doesn’t have to worry if he offends union leaders and other party powerbrokers. (Not that he ever did. Worry, that is.) But he’s not the only Democratic eminence grise to criticize the Badger State recall.
Yes, Rendell’s out of office and also has a history of contradicting his party’s official line. Plus hindsight is 20/20 and all that. Walker’s convincing victory has those on the left side of the US political spectrum casting about for something or someone to blame.
But Frank and Rendell are echoing points made by pundits from across the political spectrum. The bottom line: some aspects of the reelection fight pointed toward a Democratic loss entirely foretold.
The first was the “recall” nature of the election. It was only the third time in US history a sitting governor faced such a vote. (If you didn’t know that already you didn’t watch any cable news coverage of this event.)
Turns out Wisconsin voters thought a sitting official shouldn’t be recalled except in a dire circumstance. Walker’s successful effort to strip most public unions of bargaining rights did not qualify as such.
As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. noted yesterday, exit polls showed that only about a quarter of those who voted thought a recall was appropriate for any reason. Roughly sixty percent said a recall should be used only in case of official misconduct.
“Most voters, in other words, rejected the very premise of the election in which they were casting ballots,” writes Dionne.
Plus, the recall election was a rerun of the state’s 2010 gubernatorial race, with Walker facing the same opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. The “Groundhog Day” aspect of the vote only added to voter perceptions that it was somehow a distortion of the normal political process, according to Rendell.
“If we’re [peeved off] at what a person does in office, the answer is to beat them when they’re up for reelection,” said Rendell.
Walker beat Barrett by 53 to 46 percent, almost exactly the same margin by which he won in 2010.
In Wisconsin, lawmakers on Wednesday said that their state’s recall process was a loser in the vote along with Barrett. Democrats also complained about an aspect of Wisconsin recall law which allows the recall target to raise an unlimited amount of money for a period of time during the campaign. It was this legal quirk, more than the fundraising implications of the “Citizens United” Supreme Court case, which led to the GOP vastly outspending Democrats in the lead-up to Tuesday’s vote.
“I think it’s pretty safe to say there was a substantial anti-recall faction that played a big part Tuesday,” Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen (D) told the Appleton Post Crescent. “This is something we will have to think about going forward, how the state handles recalls, especially the part that allows incumbents to raise unlimited amounts of money.”
On his show Wednesday, Mr. Limbaugh talked about this week’s Obama fundraising sweepstakes for dinner with the first couple, Vogue editor Anna Wintour, and actress Sarah Jessica Parker. He played the ads Ms. Wintour and Ms. Parker have cut to promote Obama’s candidacy.
Then El Rushbo opined that this coziness with the New York celebritocracy shows how remote Obama is from ordinary people.
Ouch. Limbaugh is not just calling Obama a celebrity here. He’s calling him a lightweight. Can you picture Kim Kardashian reading a CBO report? Only if each reference to “deficit” were replaced with the word “shoes."
You’ll notice that Limbaugh did not call him “Barack Clooney.” That would have left a different impression. More ... suave.
Well, we’ve got a couple of opinions about this. First, it appears that Limbaugh has gotten whatever talking point memo the Republican National Committee sent out for the week. The RNC and Romney surrogates have been hitting the “out-of-touch-celebrity” theme hard. The RNC even produced its own Web ad on the subject.
Second, we’re not sure this approach works for the GOP. Romney supporter Donald Trump, who knows a thing or two about the limelight, has said as much, pointing out that Republicans are just making Obama look good in comparison with the less-smooth presumptive GOP nominee.
John McCain tried it, and it didn’t help him.
On the whole, voters still personally like Obama more than Romney. Romney’s favorables have gone up as he gains full nominee stature, but Obama’s are still 8 to 10 percentage points higher, depending on the poll.
Plus, voters tend to judge Obama as being more prone to understanding their problems. As George Washington University political scientist John Sides wrote earlier this year, Romney has an “empathy gap” of about 10 percentage points, with voters picking Obama as the person who “cares about people like me."
Celebrities are above all that, aren’t they?
In any case, Mr. Sides notes that all this stuff about the personality of presidential candidates is kind of a sideshow, when compared with the electoral effects of voter perception of the economy, and whether or not it is improving. Republicans might be better off to focus like a laser on jobs, as opposed to the president’s supposed resemblance to a reality TV star whose latest accomplishment was winning a record for world’s shortest marriage.
“In general, be wary of any claim that there is a single path to victory, particularly if that path involves a candidate’s personality,” wrote Sides in the New York Times FiveThirtyEight polling blog.
First lady Michelle Obama was on the “Late Show with David Letterman” Tuesday night in honor of the publication of her new book, “American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden.” She delivered the Top 10 list: Top 10 Fun Facts About Gardening. How did it go? Was she funny?
Well, you can watch it here, and make your own conclusion. From our point of view, she was funny, since the Letterman writers could wring a laugh out of anything. (Our favorite was No. 4: “If you have an actual green thumb, it might be scurvy.”) But she wasn’t FUNNY, if you know what we mean. The chuckle-meter wasn’t set to “stun.”
Mainly that’s because gardening is not inherently humorous. Names for Newt’s moon colony, Joe Biden nicknames – those are topics with comedy juice. Gardening is all heirloom mulch and where-should-we-put-the-salvia. It’s earnest and good for you. That’s hard to mock. Or hard to mock without going too far. Mrs. Obama might as well have been doing “Top 10 Fun Facts about Fresh Air.”
(OK, we did like the bit about “Weed Whacker One.” But “gardening was invented in 1822 by Albert Gardener”? That’s too subtle for our taste.)
Also, the first lady can’t just let fly with the yuks. She’s got a positive, restrained image to uphold. There’s a reason she’s got the highest approval rating in the White House – 65 percent in the latest CNN poll. Her husband is probably wondering if he can dump Joe and run her as VP.
That’s probably why the list touched only tangentially on fighting obesity. (No. 7: “In his lifetime, the average American will eat half a radish.”) New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban big sodas has become kind of a partisan flash point. Conservatives see it as an example of big government going too far. Liberals see it as an example of right-size government going too far. A poll shows a majority of New Yorkers oppose the move. So the whole issue of the government telling you what to consume is fraught, at the moment.
In the past, Mrs. Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to get kids to exercise has drawn some grumbling about nannyism from the right. So she has had to be careful what she says about sodageddon. She has said she rejects a “one-size-fits-all” approach to fighting fat, and thus would not support a federal soda ban. But at an event on Tuesday she added that “we applaud anyone who’s stepping up to think about what changes work in their communities.”
So that’s why the Letterman list wasn’t “Top 10 New Manhattan Soda Sizes.” Got any ideas for that one? (Or for Joe Biden nicknames?) Leave them in comments below.
IN PICTURES: The White House vegetable garden
With a little dramatic music, the Senate's party-line rejection of the Paycheck Fairness Act on Tuesday could have easily doubled for two dueling campaign ads.
Democrats and Republicans weren't arguing with each other before or after the legislation fell short – with 52 votes for and 47 against, the measure came up short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.
Instead, both sides blew right past each other, straight to the TV cameras. Democrats decried another front in what they allege is a Republican "war on women," while Republicans tried to turn the spotlight back to the economy.
On the left, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland led a phalanx of Democratic women in support of the measure outside of the Senate chamber, ripping the GOP for standing against "equal pay for equal work."
The Paycheck Fairness Act would offer several additional protections for women in the workplace, including an increased ability to pursue punitive damages for unequal pay claims; prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who inquire about payment practices or who disclose their own salaries; and require businesses to prove that differences in pay between genders were rooted in business requirements.
Republicans say the bill only opens a door to needless litigation.
Democrats even had a campaign commercial standby: the celebrity endorser. Women's rights activist Lily Ledbetter marched from the House to the Senate with a half-dozen House Democrats to give a press conference before the vote. Mrs. Ledbetter's name is affixed to the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama, a law that broadened the ability for employees to sue employers for pay discrimination.
"The only Republicans who are against our common-sense measure are the ones here in Washington," Senator Reid said. "Even Mitt Romney has refused to publicly oppose this legislation."
Romney's campaign has not commented on the subject to an array of news organizations.
That reticence was on display among the Senate GOP caucus on Tuesday. On the right, only a single Republican – Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada – came to the Senate floor to debate the bill. Indeed, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took the unusual tack of declining to fire back at his counterpart Reid's pointed criticisms during McConnell's opening remarks both Monday and Tuesday.
When the Senate's Republican leadership did speak up for their weekly press conference, it was as if the Paycheck Fairness vote was happening in another reality. Instead, Republicans stayed glued to their myriad critiques of Mr. Obama – instead of arguing Paycheck Fairness, they were deep into their “Greatest Gripes with the Obama administration:”
• McConnell hit the President for a lack of leadership on student loans.
Asked why Republicans opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, McConnell offered a terse response.
"This is issue is about rewarding plaintiffs lawyers for filing lawsuits," McConnell said. The Democrats’ “view is America suffers from not enough litigation."
What's next for the legislation? For reasons of procedural arcana, Reid voted against the measure in order to be able to resurrect it at a later date if need be.
But principally, Tuesday's vote will be pressed into service by Democrats as a campaign weapon.
"I'm putting my lipstick on – and I'm combat ready," Ms. Mikulski said, swiping a red rouge across her lower lip at a press conference after the vote.
Later, she added: "We're not exactly sure where the battlefield will be, but the fight is going to continue."
The statistic most commonly cited in media coverage about the Wisconsin recall is that this is just the third gubernatorial recall in US history (the other two being the 2003 recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, and the 1921 recall of North Dakota Gov. Lynn Frazier).
But while gubernatorial recalls may be rare, the number of recalls taking place in state and local jurisdictions has been sharply rising of late.
According to Joshua Spivak's Recall Elections Blog, a total of 103 recalls have either taken place, been scheduled, or already forced a resignation in 17 different states so far this year, with 17 of them taking place Tuesday (six in Wisconsin, six in California, and five in Oregon). This puts 2012 on track to beat 2011, which saw a total of 151 recalls, resulting in 85 removals.
Why the recent spike? In a recent article for The Atlantic, Mr. Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., points the finger primarily at technology. In the past, the biggest hurdle for a recall effort was the cost of gathering signatures. But social media is changing that game dramatically.
We would also suggest that the rise in recalls says something about the nation's increasingly polarized and bitter politics. At a time when partisanship in America is at a 25-year high, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center, it seems entirely unsurprising that recalls have become a more popular political tool – particularly since, as Spivak bluntly puts it, "they work." While incumbents typically have a strong advantage in regular elections, their rate of survival when it comes to recalls is much lower.
Indeed, perhaps the only thing preventing a coast-to-coast explosion of recalls these days is the fact that most states still don't allow them. According to the Center on the American Governor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, just 19 states allow recalls for governors and other state officeholders. In eight of those states, there must be evidence of something like malfeasance or ethical violations for a recall to take place. But in 11 states, recalls can be held for purely political reasons. And those types of recalls are happening with greater and greater frequency.
The national news media are riveted by the contest, and that will magnify the result. A loss for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic challenger, will be seen as a blow to Mr. Obama and his prospects for November. After all, Wisconsin is a battleground state. A win for Mayor Barrett, the underdog, will be seen as a significant boost to Obama, on the heels of bad economic news.
But the impact will fade fast, political observers say.
“It’s June,” says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. “Yes, a victory by Walker will give Republicans a burst of energy, but will it last five months? No way.”
IN PICTURES: Showdown in Wisconsin
Still, there will be one lasting implication: A Walker victory will force the Obama campaign to expend resources – time, money, volunteer effort – that it might otherwise not have had to. And those are resources that will be taken from campaign efforts in other states.
Obama won Wisconsin big in 2008 – by 14 percentage points. As of now, outside observers see Wisconsin as leaning Democratic, so while it’s not a sure thing for Obama, it’s a state he should win this November.
As of April, unemployment there was at 6.7 percent, well below the national average (8.1 percent in April). But with a Walker victory on Tuesday, Republicans will see an opening to go after Obama on friendly territory. For the president, Wisconsin is a must-win.
In another wrinkle, the Obama campaign released a map to its supporters Monday showing the presidential battleground states, and listed Wisconsin as a tossup – not leaning Democratic. That sends another signal to Republicans that Wisconsin is fertile territory for Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee.
“That’s a mistake,” says Mr. Sabato.
Tuesday’s recall vote also represents a test for the clout of organized labor, long seen as waning. But as a dry run for November, the test is imperfect. Some Wisconsin voters are weary of the year-plus of political turmoil the state has endured since Walker’s bold move to strip unions of most collective bargaining rights.
And it’s not a sure thing that all Obama voters will support Barrett. Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin cites the state’s tradition of ticket-splitters. According to media reports, some Wisconsinites will vote for Walker simply as a protest against the recall process, not because they necessarily like the governor’s policies.
"The recall should only be used when there's an egregious action" by an elected official, David Riese, a retired physician, told USA Today in a story out of Monroe, Wis.
Recalls of governors are extremely rare in American politics. Walker is only the third in US history to face this sort of challenge – and if he survives, he will be the first to do so. That alone will give him a certain rock-star status in GOP circles, following the maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
That’s not exactly what Wisconsin Democrats envisioned when they gathered signatures to set up the Tuesday ballot. But national Democrats, including Obama, were never enamored of the Badger State’s recall gambit. The timing isn’t ideal. College students, a key element of Democratic get-out-the-vote activity, are off for summer break.
Obama, quite pointedly, chose not to campaign for Barrett, likely because he didn’t want to associate himself with a campaign that may well lose. On Monday afternoon, the president finally came through with a pro-forma endorsement – delivered via Twitter.
IN PICTURES: Showdown in Wisconsin
Sarah Jessica Parker is a big supporter of President Obama. We know this because she said so during a 30-second Obama campaign spot that ran numerous times during the MTV Movie Awards on Sunday night.
Did you see it? The “Sex and the City” star was breezy and informal, referring to Obama as “the guy who ended the war in Iraq” and “the guy who says you should be able to marry anyone you want,” and so on. The fast-tempo, cheery music under her voice made the whole thing sound like a trailer for an upcoming production of some kind, which in a way it was. Ms. Parker touted an Obama fundraising raffle in which the winner gets to have a meal with her, the president and first lady, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour on June 14. (Entries closed Monday night. Please don’t sob into your herbal tea.)
“Sarah Jessica Parker is a loving mom, an incredibly hard worker, and a great role model. She’s one of those people you can’t help but admire,” said Mrs. Obama.
Given the style, the star, and the placement, the Parker ad seems an attempt to reach the youth vote and the crucial shoe-loving segment of the female population. But will it work? We ask this because Parker, Wintour, et al., symbolize the glitzy celebrity side of the Obama White House that Republicans love to mock.
The GOP insists that all the Obama appearances on talk shows, during which he does stuff like “slow jam the news” (talking policy over an R&B beat) cheapens the presidency. As for the Hollywood stars that flock to Obama’s presence, they’re a flying band of nitwits that should stick to what they know best. Or something like that.
On Monday the Republican Party released its own ad mocking the upcoming Parker/Wintour festivities. Interestingly, it did not mention or feature Parker. Is she too nice to attack? Instead, it ran almost the whole length of Anna Wintour’s own ad announcing the contest. The famously tough Vogue editor (“The Devil Wears Prada” is loosely based on her exploits) talks in the sort of monied accent that says, “I live in Manhattan and you don’t.”
Under this, the GOP ad just runs numbers – the unemployment rate among women, the unemployment rate among African-Americans, and so forth.
Some conservative pundits say the Parker/Wintour dinner is so out of touch that Obama must be desperate for cash.
“The Obama campaign is very, very worried about money. Their latest effort to get the big bucks is being mocked mercilessly by the Republican National Committee,” wrote Jennifer Rubin on her “Right Turn” Washington Post blog.
But some other Romney supporters warn that celebrities have lots of appeal in the US, and to emphasize Obama’s relationship with them only raises the president’s glamour quotient. Take Donald Trump, who knows a thing or two about cameras.
Last month, The Donald told Newsmax that he’s thinking of starting his own "super political-action committee" because he thinks the quality of many pro-Romney ads is pretty low.
“There was a recent [anti-Obama] commercial done where they made him look like a superhero. I’m saying, who made this commercial? I thought it was one of the worst commercials I’ve ever seen,” Trump said.