Vice President Joe Biden’s remark that Republican policies would put middle-income Americans “back in chains” has touched off a partisan sparring match, drawing a rebuke from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and leaving President Barack Obama to defend his No. 2.
Romney said the Biden comment is demeaning. Obama said the fuss is exaggerated. And a Democratic-turned-Republican former congressman detected racial overtones.
Obama dismissed the criticism as Romney said Biden’s remarks take the White House campaign “another level lower.”
The president said in an interview with People magazine that Biden was referring to Republican opposition to laws passed to tighten regulations on banks.
“The truth is that during the course of these campaigns, folks like to get obsessed with how something was phrased even if everybody personally understands that’s not how it was meant,” Obama said in the interview. Excerpts were released by the magazine. While in Iowa the president made similar comments on the syndicated television program “Entertainment Tonight.”
The campaigns engaged in a battle over Biden’s words as Obama, Romney and their running mates made appeals to voters in the handful of swing states that may decide the November presidential election. They escalated their attacks on each other on taxes and the government’s Medicare program, which has moved to the center of the debate since Romney picked Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his choice for vice president.
Biden told a crowd in Danville, Virginia, two days ago that Romney would “let the big banks once again write their own rules. Unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put you all back in chains.”
Former U.S. Representative Artur Davis, who is black, told CNN that Biden’s words carried racial overtones.
“I know what Joe Biden was doing yesterday,” Davis, who switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, told CNN. “And every black person in that room knew who the ‘ya’ll’ was, knew what the chains were about, knew what the metaphor was.”
Obama, the first black U.S. president, said in the People interview that the context of Biden’s statement made clear he was saying “you, consumers, the American people, will be a lot worse off if we repeal these laws as the other side is suggesting.”
“In no sense was he trying to connote something other than that,” Obama said.
Obama met with Biden for their weekly lunch at the White House. Press secretary Jay Carney reiterated that there is no chance Obama would replace Biden on the ticket. “That was settled a long, long time ago,” he said.
Carney said Republicans were “trying to make something out of nothing” to distract from the debate over policy, an accusation that both Romney and Ryan have leveled at the president’s campaign.
Romney told donors in Charlotte, North Carolina, yesterday that Obama has an “attack America” strategy that “is demeaning to the presidency,” and an “unfortunate and highly troubling course in this campaign.”
Biden’s comment, he said, “just takes the White House another level lower.”
“I happen to think the president will do or say anything to get elected,” Romney said at the Duke Mansion at the first of three fundraising events in Charlotte that his finance director, Spencer Zwick, said would raise a total of $1.5 million.
At a campaign event in Ohio this week, Romney referred to the vice president’s comment without naming Biden, calling it an “outrageous charge.”
“This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like,” Romney said. Ryan, in Ohio yesterday, said Obama was trying to run an election campaign “based on anger and division.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement that Romney’s remarks “seemed unhinged.”
The rhetoric from the campaigns also sharpened over policy. The campaigns are sparring over Medicare, the government health program for the elderly, which is prized by senior citizens, who vote in disproportionate numbers. The debate has devolved into a policy-oriented round of mudslinging, with both sides misrepresenting the other’s plans.
Ryan said he welcomed the debate over his Medicare proposals, wading into the politically risky issue in a swing state.
“We want this debate. We need this debate and we will win this debate,” he told voters gathered on the campus of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
The remarks, made in his only public event of the day, marked the first time Ryan has mentioned Medicare at a campaign event since being announced as Romney’s running mate on Aug. 11.
Standing on a small podium at his alma matter, Ryan said Obama is raiding the program to pay for the health-care law that passed Congress in 2010.
The Romney campaign says that the $716 billion in reduced Medicare spending over a decade used to finance the law will undermine the long-term sustainability of Medicare.
Obama, campaigning in Iowa, said Romney and Ryan are “making all kinds of stuff up about my plans.”
While most of Obama’s stump speech centered on criticism of Romney’s fiscal proposals -- referring to them as “trickle-down snake oil” -- he has added a section on Medicare as Romney and Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, have spotlighted it.
“I have strengthened Medicare,” Obama said in Dubuque, Iowa. “Now, Mr. Romney and his running mate have a very different plan. They want to turn Medicare into a voucher program.”
The Medicare cuts Romney is focusing on include reduced reimbursement rates to hospitals, drug companies and insurers. Those reductions don’t affect the benefits that seniors are guaranteed to receive under the program.
The latest version of Ryan’s plan -- and the one Romney proposes -- would give the elderly a choice of staying in the Medicare program or taking a subsidy to buy private insurance.