Obama Battles Romney Over Who Is Most in Touch on Economy

President Barack Obama said it is “absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine,” seeking to contain criticism from Mitt Romney that his upbeat remarks about the U.S. private sector show he is out of touch.

Democrats and organized labor, in turn, faulted Romney for questioning Obama’s call to hire more police and firemen, after Romney said that “it’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”

The back-and-forth yesterday capped a week of economic and political developments that put the Obama administration on the defensive and dealt a blow to the president’s re-election bid. These included a June 1 report showing the U.S. unemployment rate increased in May, and the failure of Democrats and unions in a recall vote against Republican Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, a state Obama’s campaign is counting on in the November election.

Obama’s clarification came after Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and other Republicans criticized comments the president made at a White House news conference that they said showed Obama doesn’t understand the state of the U.S. economy.

“The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone,” Obama said at the news conference. “The private sector is doing fine.”

Romney Criticism

Jobs in the U.S. grew by 69,000 in May, the fewest in a year and less than the most pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News survey of private economists. The unemployment rate increased to 8.2 percent last month from 8.1 percent in April, the first rise since June 2011.

Romney told Iowa voters that Obama is “defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people.” He also questioned Obama’s calls for additional federal spending to boost job growth.

“He wants to hire more government workers,” Romney said. “He says we need more fireman, more policeman, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did.”

Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO, said it was “no surprise that Mitt Romney, Mr. 1 percent himself, is going after firefighters, police, teachers and ordinary Americans.”

Sagar said Romney is “totally out of touch with working-class Americans,” according to a statement circulated by the Democratic National Committee.

2008 Moment

The Republican National Committee rushed out a Web ad that featured a video clip of Obama saying “the private sector’s doing fine” followed by text posing the question, “How can President Obama fix our economy if he doesn’t understand what’s broken?”

The exchanges recalled a moment in the 2008 campaign. The Republican nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, said “the fundamentals of our economy are strong” on Sept. 15 after the bankruptcy filing of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. as the financial crisis intensified. At the time, Obama’s campaign derided McCain as “out of touch.”

“I’m sure Democratic speechwriters, their stomachs were turning,” independent political analyst Stu Rothenberg said.

Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who served as a deputy campaign manager for Democrat John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, said, while Republicans would try to get mileage out of the comment, Obama’s analysis was accurate.

“Look, the economy’s doing better than when he started out being president,” he said. “He made it pretty clear he’s not satisfied with where things are and things need to improve.”

Republican Opening

Republicans saw an opening in the president’s remarks.

“I think it’s a pretty devastating mistake,” said Rob Stutzman, a Sacramento, California-based Republican political consultant. He compared it with McCain’s 2008 remarks, which were widely seen as a significant blow to his election chances.

“This is the day that he really lost his grip on his re-election,” Stutzman said of Obama.

“As John McCain learned, you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube,” said Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide who is now the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. It may not matter in the long-term, he said.

“But in the short term it’s not an ideal way to end up a less than ideal week,” Schnur said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said at a news conference, “My question would be to the president, ’Are you kidding?’”

‘Little Attention’

Robert Dallek, a retired professor of presidential history at Boston University, said the timing may matter more than the actual remarks.

“At this point in the election cycle people are paying very, very little attention,” he said. “There will be so many other things on the front page and something will come along tomorrow that will just push this to farthest reaches of people minds.”

Romney used Obama’s statement to reinforce his line of attack against the president.

“Is he really that out of touch? I think he’s defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people,” Romney said at a campaign event in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “Has there ever been an American president who is so far from reality?”

Following Romney’s jab, Obama told reporters gathered in the Oval Office, where he held an afternoon meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino, “Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine. That’s the reason I had the press conference.”

‘Good Momentum’

While there has been “some good momentum” in the private sector, he said, “there are too many people out of work, the housing market is still weak and too many homes underwater.”

Obama said Romney and Republicans in Congress haven’t offered proposals to spur growth.

“What I’m interested in hearing from Congress and Mr. Romney is, what steps are they willing to take right now that are going to make an actual difference?” Obama said after the meeting with Aquino.

Obama’s campaign accused Romney of trying to “talk down” the U.S. economy.

“Iowans got today what they’ve come to expect from Mitt Romney: angry, dishonest rhetoric about President Obama and zero new solutions to grow the economy and strengthen the middle class,” Obama re-election spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement.

Iowa’s Importance

Romney visited Iowa less than a month ago, on May 16, and its place on his schedule signals his interest in trying to take the state from Obama’s column this year.

An NBC News-Marist poll released May 31 showed Obama and Romney tied in Iowa, each with support from 44 percent of registered voters, figures that include those who are undecided yet leaning toward one of the candidates. Eliminating the leaners, 10 percent of voters in the state are undecided, the poll showed.

The campaign for Iowa’s electoral votes will play out in a state with a better economic environment than the national picture. The state’s jobless rate in April was 5.1 percent, below the current national average of 8.2 percent and down from 6.3 percent in November 2010.

After his Iowa stop, Romney was scheduled to appear in Salt Lake City with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who faces a primary race on June 26, and attend a fundraiser there. He is taking the weekend off from the campaign trail.

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