When you have a problem, hang a lantern on it. President Obama followed that political maxim Thursday in a speech in Cleveland focused on the economy, shining a light on his own recent troubles moments after Mitt Romney delivered his own economic address in Cincinnati.
The dueling speeches in Ohio – one of the top battlegrounds of the 2012 election – presented the expected stark choice to voters.
Former Massachusetts Governor Romney said Mr. Obama’s time in office has been marked by a series of policies that are bad for business, from "failed stimulus" to "ObamaCare."
Obama said his tenure has been all about digging out from the worst recession since the Great Depression, leading up to what he calls a “make or break moment” for the middle class.
But more than anything, Obama’s speech Thursday was about hitting the reset button after a tough two-week stretch marked by bad economic news, dissonant statements from leading Democrats, and a presidential gaffe on the private sector that will dog him until Election Day.
Obama used self-deprecating humor to try to clear the air over his comment last Friday that “the private sector is doing fine” – a statement he clarified soon thereafter, but which Team Romney has sought to exploit daily ever since.
“There will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about,” Obama said.
“You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process,” he added, to laughter from the crowd at Cuyahoga Community College Metropolitan Campus in Cleveland. “It wasn't the first time; it won't be the last.”
Later, Obama heaped sarcasm on his opponent’s TV ads on the economy.
“The other side will spend over a billion dollars on ads that tell you the economy is bad, that it's all my fault – that I can't fix it because I think government is always the answer, or because I didn't make a lot money in the private sector and don't understand it, or because I'm in over my head, or because I think everything and everybody is doing just fine,” he said, to laughter and applause.
“That's what the scary voice in the ads will say,” he said. “That's what Mr. Romney will say. That's what the Republicans in Congress will say. Well, you know, that may be their plan to win the election. But it’s not a plan to create jobs.”
The workmanlike Romney tried to discount Obama’s speaking skill, saying that “he’s going to be a person of eloquence as he describes his plans for making the economy better.”
“But don’t forget, he's been president for 3-1/2 years, and talk is cheap,” Romney continued. “Action speaks very loud.”
Romney accused Obama of promoting policies that have harmed entrepreneurship, innovation, job creation, and wage growth. He ranged across the various sectors of the economy, and when talk turned to energy, he included coal. This is noteworthy, because of the role that coal plays in Ohio’s economy, as well as in neighboring Pennsylvania, another battleground state.
“Talk to the people in the coal industry and ask whether his regulations have helped them mine coal,” Romney said. “And what they'll tell you is on almost every front he's made it harder to get coal from the ground and made it less likely for people to be able to use it.”
As pitched as the battle is now between Obama and Romney over the weak economy, the debate has only just started. Both candidates face a deficit in public opinion. Data from an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Wednesday show that 54 percent of independents see Obama’s economic plans negatively, versus only 38 percent who see them positively.
Romney fares little better. He scored 47 percent unfavorable, 35 percent favorable among independents on his economic plans.
“But more are undecided, giving Romney some room to maneuver,” writes Greg Holyk in an ABC News analysis. “Unlike Obama, Romney avoids majority criticism in this group."