President Obama stirred up a fresh round of political crossfire this week, when he responded to an interviewer's question by saying his biggest mistake has been in the arena of messaging, not policy.
"The mistake of my first term – couple of years – was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right. And that's important. But the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times," Mr. Obama told Charlie Rose of CBS. The president said he wants to do better at "explaining, but also inspiring."
That prompted a quick response from his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney.
“Being president is not about telling stories. Being president is about leading, and President Obama has failed to lead," Mr. Romney said, with his campaign citing millions of Americans who have lost homes or jobs in the weak economy.
Whether Romney is right or wrong, the exchange puts new focus on Obama's track record at a time when media coverage of the campaign had shifted in other directions, notably to questions about Romney and his years in private equity at the firm Bain Capital.
Central to Romney's pitch is the idea that he, as a former business leader, understands how the economy works. And that Obama does not.
Romney's statement Thursday was accompanied by less-than-inspiring statistics on unemployment, the national debt, consumer confidence, and health-care costs under Obama.
In the CBS interview, Obama called Romney's own leadership credentials into question, arguing that seeking profitable corporate investments is different from crafting policies to maximize job growth. "That doesn't necessarily make you qualified to think about the economy as a whole, because as president, my job is to think about the workers. My job is to think about communities, where jobs have been outsourced."
"When you look at the record [of Bain Capital on job creation], there are questions there that have to be asked," Obama said. (News organizations and fact-check groups have been asking those questions.)
How about Obama's record? A summary of pro and con views:
The negative view of conservative critics is that, although Obama inherited a bad economy, he has made things worse by failing to focus squarely on job-friendly policies. His stimulus programs pursued a range of liberal objectives, from aiding labor unions to expanding green energy to aiding municipal governments. His effort to expand health coverage to more Americans imposes new taxes on individuals and businesses, while lacking effective cost controls for the health-care system. At a time of high gasoline prices, he has regulated domestic energy production rather than encourage it.
The critics agree there's a "messaging" problem, but not in the way Obama means. They complain that instead of making moves to inspire business confidence (such as tackling the federal debt problem or streamlining regulations) Obama demonizes private sector job creators as "fat cats" and as wealthy people who aren't paying their fair share in taxes.
Some also blast Obama for diluting the rule of law (a foundation for free-market enterprise) with bureaucratic whim, as when bond investors were pushed aside in government-assisted restructuring of Detroit automakers.
Although these harsh views emerge most loudly from Republicans, they are echoed by some voices on the left as well. Blogger Mickey Kaus compiled a list of "Top 10 Things Obama Could Have Done Differently" last year, including some moves conservatives would agree with.
Obama's defenders argue that his policies have helped to steer a crisis-wracked economy out of recession, and that policy shortcomings are more about Republicans' failure to compromise than about any lack of vision on Obama's part. On the national debt, for example, they say Obama has shown readiness to strike a "grand bargain" that includes major long-term spending cuts. The president's only stipulation is that the plan be a "balanced" one that also includes higher tax rates on the rich, as were in place during the 1990s.
On health care, they argue that the new taxes (and penalties for large firms that don't offer insurance) will not be job killers. Even some conservatives agree with Mr. Kaus in arguing that a push toward a universal health-care system, far from stifling business, would encourage risk-taking and job-hopping, because people wouldn't be afraid of losing access to medical care if they lose a job or see a business venture fail.
Although the effectiveness of Obama's Recovery Act is much debated, a large majority of economists in one survey said the extra spending and tax cuts helped keep America's unemployment rate lower in 2010, as the nation emerged from recession. A plurality in this IGM Economic Experts Panel also said they believed that "the benefits of the stimulus will end up exceeding its costs."
Those are just some of the prominent lines of argument on both sides. Expect to hear more of these between now and when voters get to render their own official judgment in November.