President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney jockeyed for advantage on the economy in the home of the nation’s first primary yesterday, offering a preview of a 2012 contest that’s still taking shape.
Obama traveled to New Hampshire, site of the Jan. 10 vote that will help decide his opponent next year, to promote his jobs plan and charge Republicans with intransigence on taxes and disregard for economic fairness. The two campaigns also sparred over the fairness of a Romney ad that greeted the president in the state and uses an Obama comment out of context.
The president arrived in Manchester a day after negotiations on a deficit-cutting plan by a bipartisan congressional panel collapsed without an agreement, setting up an election year fight over who’s responsible for gridlock in Washington.
“Some folks in Washington don’t seem to get the message that people care right now about putting folks back to work,” Obama said at Manchester Central High School, criticizing Republicans in Congress who he says have blocked his plan to spur hiring. He promised to keep trying to force lawmakers to pass elements of his proposal, particularly an extension of a payroll tax cut that’s set to expire at the end of the year.
“Tell them, ‘Don’t be a Grinch,’ don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays,” Obama said. “Put the country before party.”
The visit foreshadowed the direction of electoral contest to come. Romney’s campaign orchestrated a response, using its first television advertisement and a print ad to criticize Obama’s record on the economy, organizing supporters for an anti-Obama rally and arranging a press conference call with prominent Romney backers, including New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte.
“I will be blunt,” Romney wrote in an open letter to Obama, which the Republican’s campaign was running as a full-page advertisement in New Hampshire newspapers. “Your policies have failed.”
Obama trails the former Massachusetts governor among likely general election voters in New Hampshire by 10 percentage points in a hypothetical contest, according to a Bloomberg News poll conducted Nov. 10-11. Obama carried New Hampshire in the 2008 general election, winning 54 percent of the vote there.
Romney has been a leading candidate for the Republican nomination through most of the early stages of the campaign. A poll released yesterday by Quinnipiac University shows him trailing former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich nationally among Republicans, 26 percent to 22 percent. Businessman Herman Cain was third with 14 percent.
Romney’s TV ad contrasts Obama’s 2008 campaign-trail promises of better economic times with the nation’s sluggish recovery and soaring government debt. It also lifts a snippet of an Obama quote out of context in which the president says, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
When Obama said those words in 2008, he was quoting an adviser to his opponent, Arizona Senator John McCain, discussing the Republican campaign’s attempt to change the subject from the poor state of the economy. Romney’s campaign acknowledged as much in a news release distributed with the ad and in statements to reporters yesterday.
“This is something that was done intentionally,” Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director, said during the conference call. “The tables have turned. President Obama is doing exactly what candidate Obama has criticized. They have tried to distract voters from his horrible record on jobs.”
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the ad was marked by “blatant dishonesty.”
“It’s a rather remarkable way to start,” Carney told reporters traveling with Obama.
The Politifact.com website, operated by the St. Petersburg Times to fact-check campaign claims, said the Romney ad takes Obama’s words “out of context in a ridiculously misleading way,” and gave it a “Pants on Fire” rating for honesty.
The economy will be a top issue in the 2012 campaign, as the nation’s unemployment has hovered at or above 9 percent for more than two years. Gross domestic product climbed at a 2 percent annual rate from July through September, less than projected by economists and down from a 2.5 percent prior estimate, Commerce Department data showed.
The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 Index fell for a fifth day, losing 0.4 percent to close at 1,188.04 at 4 p.m. in New York yesterday.
In talking about boosting the economy, Obama focused on his proposal for lower payroll taxes on workers and small employers in 2012, expanding on 2011’s temporary cuts. Obama said he wants lawmakers to vote next week on lower payroll levies, saying that if this year’s lower rates expire on Dec. 31 it would reduce workers’ take-home pay and crimp consumer spending.
“If Congress refuses to act, then middle-class families are going to get hit with a tax increase at the worst possible time,” Obama said. He asked whether Republicans are “really willing to break their oath to never raise taxes, and raise taxes on the middle class, just to play politics?”
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said he’s willing to talk about the extension with the White House.
“We told the president in September that we stand ready to have an honest and fruitful discussion with him regarding the payroll tax extension, and that invitation stands,” Boehner said in a statement released yesterday.
New Hampshire, along with playing a key role in deciding who Obama faces next year through its primary, also is a swing state in the general election that has voted with the winner in four of the past five presidential elections. The one time it was in the losing column was in 2004, when Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, carried its four electoral votes against then-President George W. Bush.
The state weathered the recession better than the nation as a whole. Its unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in October and the state’s economic health improved 1.7 percent during the year ended June 30, 17th-best among 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Bloomberg Economic Evaluation of States Index, which uses data on real estate, jobs, taxes and stock prices to gauge growth.
-- With assistance from Richard Rubin, Mike Dorning and Jonathan D. Salant in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Don Frederick