Obama gaffe: why judging the economy is a no-win

Broad statements about the economy – good or bad – are a losing proposition for President Obama. Team Romney will exploit them either way.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
President Obama talks about the economy in the briefing room of the White House on June 8.

President Obama’s political fate hangs largely on how the US economy does in the next several months. And with a balky Congress and European economies teetering on the edge, there’s not a whole lot he can do.

What Mr. Obama can control is how he talks about the economy, and on that score, he’s discovered the perils of speaking off the cuff. His remark at last Friday’s press conference – “the private sector is doing fine” – was a misstatement, made as part of his plea to Congress to fund public-sector jobs. Within a few hours, he had clarified himself. 

“It is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine,” Obama told reporters after a meeting with the president of the Philippines. “That's the reason I had the press conference.”

Team Romney is finding good value in both comments. In a 24-hour period, the campaign put out two Web videos on the original “private sector fine” statement. The second, released Monday morning, juxtaposes the comment with May’s weak jobs numbers. The first, out Sunday, highlights stories of people struggling with bankruptcy and unemployment.

But Team Obama fares no better by arguing the economy is “not fine.” When former Obama “car czar” Steven Rattner amplified the president’s clarification Monday morning on MSNBC, noting that close to 5 million private-sector jobs have disappeared since the beginning of the recession, the Republican National Committee immediately did an e-mail blast with the video clip.

“I think you have a hard time saying the private sector is doing fine,” Mr. Rattner said.

In short, Obama can’t win. If he makes a broadly positive assertion about the economy – arguably defensible for a president trying to reassure the markets – he’s accused of being out of touch. If he says something broadly negative, he becomes Debbie Downer, risking the appearance of talking the economy into another recession.

Like many of Mitt Romney’s easily exploited comments – see “I like being able to fire people” – Obama’s was taken out of context. He was contrasting the private sector, which at least is still gaining jobs, with the public sector, which is shrinking. The overarching message was a plea to Congress to fund more firefighters, police, and teachers.

Obama might decide the way to prevent future such mishaps is to avoid unscripted remarks in public. But that’s hard to do when you’re president, even one who gives few press conferences. Obama, famous for his frequent use of a TelePrompTer, knows that he has to be careful with his words – just as Romney, his November opponent, is learning.

Between now and Election Day, Obama can’t avoid discussing the economy, by far the most important issue for voters. He needs to show middle-class voters he’s aware of their fears and challenges. He also has to be super-careful not to have a “grocery scanner” moment – like the apocryphal story about President George H.W. Bush, who was portrayed in the press as being amazed by everyday technology at the supermarket, a story that was subsequently proven false. That event  took place in February 1992, and the misunderstanding stuck with him all the way to Election Day, when he lost.

But Obama is not the first President Bush, whose patrician background lent itself to a narrative of being out of touch with average folks. Obama is in some ways more similar to Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 nominee, who asserted right before the financial collapse that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”

The remark made Senator McCain look ill-informed on the state of the economy. Ditto Obama’s remark, even though he and his team immediately made it clear that he does not believe the economy is strong.

The Romney campaign nevertheless appears ready to pound the “private sector is doing fine” comment all the way to November. Team Obama is also banging hard on Romney’s response – that Washington shouldn’t be funding more firefighters, police, and teachers. The campaign released a video Monday morning.

Obama supporters suggest that most voters aren’t paying close attention yet and won’t be affected by presidential comments made five months before the election. But that might be wishful thinking. Just as Team Obama is recycling Romney gaffes with abandon, Team Romney is likely to do the same all the way to Election Day.

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