There are those who believe that the core of American politics is spoiled rotten. Therefore, justified or not, there are critics of both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns, who believe things are about to spin out of control.
The issue these days is the president’s harsh criticism of Romney’s record at Bain Capital, considering he too has prominent donors who are also in private equity. And at a recent White House briefing, press secretary Jay Carney explained the difference between the two, and responded to Mayor Cory A. Booker of Newark and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell’s latest criticism of the campaign.
“Those folks aren’t running for president,” Carney responded. “They do not believe that their experience in their line of work wholly qualifies them to sit in the Oval Office, and be Commander-in-Chief, and make the kinds of decisions on the economy that the president must make.”
Carney continued, “he (the president) appreciates the support of Americans from every walk of life … every area of the economy, and as I’m sure you know, you reported on it, the fact of the matter is the president’s support, as demonstrated by contributions, comes demonstrably from people who just give a little bit, they’re not from huge donors.”
The administrations defense of their actions did not stop there. President Obama, responding to criticism from some Democratic supporters, said last week that attacks on Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital were fair game and that Romney’s years at the helm of a private equity firm were worthy of serious debate.
The focus on the Bain attacks has added to the clash between the two campaigns and their allies about the increasingly negative tone of the 2012 presidential campaign, especially as President Obama seeks to define Romney in the eyes of voters.
Targeting Bain carries risks for the president, not least with wealthy Wall Street executives whose largess in 2008 helped finance his campaign. Some of those supporters have already soured on the president after his efforts to tighten regulation of their industry.
“This is not a distraction,” President Obama said about Romney’s record at Bain during a news conference at the end of the NATO summit meeting in Chicago. “This is what this campaign is going to be about.”
President Obama’s comments came shortly after Booker called the Obama campaign’s focus on Bain Capital a “nauseating” part of negative campaigning on both sides.
Booker later made an about-face on Twitter and in a video; he said Romney’s record at Bain was fair game.
Last week, Republicans were quick to point out how uneasy some in President Obama’s own party are about the criticism of private equity investors, and they started an “I Stand with Cory” petition to try to embarrass the president.
“President Obama confirmed today that he will continue his attacks on the free enterprise system, which Mayor Booker and other leading Democrats have spoken out against,” Romney said in a statement. “What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty.”
The president’s comments were his first explicit endorsement of his campaign’s aggressive strategy attacking Bain Capital. The Obama campaign’s full-throated assault, through ads, statements and Web videos, is now in its third week and portrays Romney in highly personal and unflattering ways. A video released earlier in the month highlights an office supply company in Indiana whose workers were fired when it was bought by a Bain company.
“You can tell by the way he acts, the way he talks,” one former employee said of Romney in the new ad. “He doesn’t care anything about the middle-class or the lower-class people.”
President Obama has denied that such attacks were unfair or unjustified. “(Romney’s) main calling card” for becoming president was his business experience. He said Romney’s years of buying and selling companies for profit gave him little understanding of the president’s role.
“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is, ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you are missing what this job is about,” President Obama said, putting an emphasis on the words “this job.” “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity. But that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some.”
Bain Capital was also moved to defend itself, issuing a statement that said, “revenues grew in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested.”
And Romney said the attacks on his record at Bain were intended to suggest that, “I’m not a good person, or a good guy.” President Obama’s campaign dismissed that criticism, saying its ads and statements were efforts to describe how the values Romney pursued at Bain would color his actions as president.
President Obama said he views private equity firms like Bain Capital as a “healthy part of the free market” that are designed to “maximize profits.” He said that among them there are “folks who do good work.”
But he made it clear that he believes private equity firms put profits above all else, which, he said, is too limited a view at a time of economic struggle.
“Their priority is to maximize profits, and that’s not always going to be good for businesses or communities or workers,” President Obama said.
Referring to his campaign’s videos that feature workers laid off by Bain companies, President Obama said, “I’ve got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I’m thinking about folks who have been much more successful.”
Romney’s campaign has also described President Obama in harsh and personal ways. Romney has repeatedly said the president “doesn’t get it,” painting the president as an amateur. His campaign often accuses the president of personally breaking promises he made to the American people.
And the Republican super PACs have also targeted President Obama personally. The New York Times reported last week on a plan by one of them to link President Obama to his controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. It was later dropped.
Both campaigns have made it clear that they intend to focus as much on the candidates themselves as the policies they support. Booker, speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” two weeks ago, said the attacks were crowding out more serious conversations about the economy and other issues.
“My concern is we are about to go into a significant political campaign that will affect the destiny of our nation,” Booker said in his video clarification. “I am, indeed, upset. I am, indeed, frustrated. But I believe the American public, working together, we can begin to more and more denounce this type of campaigning.”
The New York Times contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is an enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com and followed on Twitter @zackburgess1.