President Barack Obama doesn’t utter Mitt Romney’s name in speeches and public remarks. He just uses the Republican front-runner’s words.
“It is wrong for anyone to suggest that the only option for struggling responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom,” Obama said yesterday in Falls Church, Virginia, announcing his latest housing proposal.
That “anyone” is the former Massachusetts governor, who last year told a newspaper in Nevada, the state with the highest foreclosure rate, that he wouldn’t intervene in the housing market.
“Let it run its course and hit the bottom,” Romney said in an interview published Oct. 17 by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
As he seeks a second term, Obama shares the advantage afforded incumbents including former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, allowing him to pursue his re-election while trying to avoid overt campaigning against an opponent.
“You don’t want to use the president in a way that makes he and Romney seem on the same plane, because it’s one of the advantages of running as president,” said Matthew Dowd, former strategist for Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign and now a Bloomberg contributor.
At the same time, by using official events and policy speeches to attack Romney, Obama runs the risk of ceding the presidential high ground too early.
“It’s a little bit too cute by half,” Dowd said.
The White House communications director, Dan Pfeiffer, declined to comment. The Republican National Committee, along with Republican lawmakers such as Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, have dubbed Obama the “campaigner in chief.”
Today, as Romney defended himself over a statement he made about the country’s poor, that word made its way twice into Obama’s remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. The president and his advisers are seeking to frame the 2012 election as a “values” debate.
“Caring for the poor and those in need,” Obama said. “These values are old.”
In a CNN interview yesterday, Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor” because they have many programs to help them. He later told reporters on his campaign plane that the comment was taken out of context and said he meant that poor people have an “ample safety net,” including Medicaid, housing vouchers and food stamps.
Obama’s approach shows that he knows Romney will be his biggest threat in November, Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Republican, said.
“Rather than focusing on job creation and helping the middle class, President Obama and his allies are focused on attacking Mitt Romney,” Saul said in an e-mail.
As the leader in the race for his party’s nomination, Romney has focused his rhetoric on Obama as much as his main Republican rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The criticism includes Obama’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy, the government bailout of General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC and the administration’s housing policy.
Obama’s campaign advisers have said they view Romney as Obama’s most likely opponent in November. The president and his surrogates haven’t let attacks by the Republican go unanswered.
‘Politics of Envy’
Over the past week, Obama has used six speeches to rebut Romney’s assertion, made in his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary, that president’s economic and tax policies are rooted in “the bitter politics of envy.”
“Just yesterday, Bill Gates said he agrees with me that Americans who can afford it should pay their fair share,” Obama said of the Microsoft Corp. co-founder Jan. 26 in Las Vegas.
“I promise you, Bill Gates does not envy the rich,” Obama said, prompting audience laughter. “This has nothing to do with envy. It has everything to do with math.”
One of the contrasts with Romney that Obama repeatedly has drawn is on the auto industry bailout. The administration says it saved 1 million jobs. Many of those are them in Michigan and Ohio, two swing states that are crucial to amassing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
Obama, who last week made his 10th trip to Michigan since taking office, ties the resurgence of the auto industry since the bailout to his plans for expanding U.S. manufacturing.
“It’s good to remember the fact that there were some folks who were willing to let this industry die,” Obama said Jan. 31 when he visited the Washington Auto Show.
While Romney isn’t the only critic of the bailouts, the Republican candidate has said a government rescue “was the wrong way to go” and GM and Chrysler should have gone through a “managed bankruptcy process, a private bankruptcy process.”
Michigan’s primary is Feb. 28. Romney has ties to the state. His father, the late George Romney, was a former governor.
“He’s engaging in the debate without engaging Romney,” said Tad Devine, a senior strategist for the president campaigns of Democrats Al Gore, the former vice president, and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. “There’s a need to begin to present a contrast between what Romney is telling people and the way the president views these same issues.”
The tactic puts Obama on the offensive against a challenger while setting up a defense of his record for the campaign. His remarks on housing, made as he announced an initiative to help homeowners refinance underwater mortgages, are aimed at countering Romney and address one of Obama’s vulnerabilities: the state of the economy.
Residential real estate values have dropped 33 percent from their July 2006 peak and have left about 11 million households owe more on their mortgages than the properties are worth. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said in a speech in Minneapolis on Sept. 8 said weakness in the housing market is a key reason “for the frustratingly slow pace of the recovery.”
One of the states hardest hit by the housing crisis, Nevada, is a battleground that Obama won in 2008 and his campaign is targeting for November. It’s also the site of the next Republican nominating contest on Feb. 4.
“There’s some thought put into this,” Devine said. “They understand they can give the stage to Romney himself, which he would dominate, or they can provide a contrast.”