Did Mitt Romney just disrespect poor Americans?

Mitt Romney told CNN 'I'm not concerned about the very poor...' Will that come off sounding tone deaf? Or was it simply a quote taken out of context?

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, stands with his wife Ann as he celebrates his Florida primary election win in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012.

Mitt Romney crushed the Florida primary - and then stepped in a general election cowpie.

Romney, in a CNN interview, said these words: “I’m not concerned about the very poor.” Let’s look at the full quote, which you can see transcribed below.

"I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about about the very poor - we have a safety net there, if it needs repair I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich, they’re doing just fine. 

I’m concerned about the very heart of America, the 90-05 percent of Americans that right now are struggling."

When you listen on, however, it’s clear is that Romney wasn’t being totally dismissive of poor people. In fact, this rings out more like his “I like to fire people” remark - absolutely tone deaf even if the point he’s making is far less controversial. Here’s how the interview continues.

Soledad O’Brian follows up on Romney’s remark on the poor.

"Finish the sentence, Soledad - I said I’m not concerned about the very poor that have a safety net but if there’s holes in it, I will repair them.

We will here from the Democrat party the plight of the poor. And there’s no question its not good being poor and we have a safety net to hep those that are very poor - but my campaign is focused on middle income americans.

You can choose to focus on the rich, you can choose to focus on the very poor: that’s not my focus. My focus is on middle income Americans, retirees living on Social Security, people who can’t find work, folks who have kids getting ready to go to college. These are the people who’ve been most badly hurt in the Obama years.

We have a very ample safety net and we can talk about whether it needs to be strengthened or whether there are holes in it. We have foodstamps, we have Medicaid, we have housing programs to help the poor, but middle income Americans are the people that are really struggling right now and we need someone who can help get this economy going for them."

Interestingly, the American people’s position on which economic classes really need help isn’t all that clear.

A Pew study released two weeks ago showed two-thirds of Americans believing a “strong” or “very strong” conflict between the richest and poorest Americans. The number of Americans who strongly believe that class conflict is occuring bounced nearly 20 percentage points since 2009.

But as Pew Research Director Andy Kohut writes in a New York Times Op-Ed entitled “Don’t Mind the Gap”:

"But while Americans are hearing more and more about class conflict, there is little indication that they are increasingly divided along these lines. People don’t necessarily want to take money from the wealthy; they just want a better chance to get rich themselves. They care about policies that give everyone a fair shot — a distinction that candidates in both parties should understand as they head into the 2012 campaigns.

An awareness of economic inequality is not new. Pew surveys going back to 1987 have found an average of 75 percent of the American public thinking that the “rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” As far back as 1941, 60 percent of respondents told the Gallup poll that there was too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations in the United States."

While the sentiment for populist revolt has lessened slightly since the 1980s - more than half of Americans now believe economic inequality is a part of the nation’s economic system - Kohut points out Americans are “upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example, 61 percent of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”

What’s the upshot of all this? As Kohut points out, Americans want more policies that promote opportunity, not necessarily equal outcomes. While they feel the deck is more stacked against the poor, they don’t really want populist solutions per se.

So where does that leave Romney? About halfway with the American people (focus on the middle class) and halfway without them (that he’s not all that concerned with poor people) - and with an awkward soundbite that’s sure to show up in Democratic ads sooner rather than later.

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