The Obama campaign ad attacking Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital was a shameless exaggeration but a brilliant political pivot. Instead of running on his record—where he is vulnerable to Mr. Romney—the president is making character the issue.
President Obama promised a lot when he ran for president—to fix the trade deficits with China and on oil, which together steal some five million jobs, curb the excesses at Wall Street banks, and curb escalating health care costs.
In perfectly choreographed fashion, the Bain ad characterized Mr. Romney as someone who bought up healthy businesses, loaded them with debt and then drove into bankruptcy—destroying jobs to enrich his private equity partners.
Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, made headlines calling the ad “nauseating to the American public,” and that gave Mr. Obama the perfect opportunity to attack Mr. Romney, oh so effectively.
The president strongly defended the ad, stating Mitt Romney is running on his experience at Bain, not his record as governor of Massachusetts. Then Mr. Obama took the opportunity to say a president can’t just worry about making a profit but rather a president must also worry about whether the country is investing in jobs today and in the future, cutting edge technology, and fairer tax system.
The president's surrogates may have backpedaled on their criticism of private equity, however, Mr. Obama brilliantly drew the contrast between his public career and Mr. Romney’s private pursuit of profit—that’s where he wants voters’ attention.
Most voters didn’t see, and certainly won’t remember the details of the Bain ad, but they will remember Mr. Obama’s goals—creating jobs, reorienting the economy and economic justice—and how Mr. Romney allegedly made his fortune—buying, borrowing, and burying jobs to get rich.
The facts are in the three years since Mr. Obama became president the trade deficit is up 40 percent, J.P. Morgan and other big banks are still running their Manhattan casinos, and health care costs keep rocketing.
It’s a lousy economy full of injustice, and Mr. Obama can’t easily claim to have made things better.
For several days the press coverage will be focused on the Bain ad and private equity, Mr. Obama’s goals and Mr. Romney’s character, and not on the incumbent’s record and the challenger’s solutions.
This is quite similar to the tactic employed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Each time bi-partisan consensus is reached to find money for a policy priority, like extending low interest student loans, he offers a bill to raise taxes on high-income Americans.
He knows Republicans will block such class warfare, and the president can then crow that he stands up for ordinary folk while Republicans stand up for the wealthy.
Yet, Mr. Romney is to blame for not turning the debate to the economy and his solutions. He has criticized the president’s record but not with the showmanship and skill of the Obama to Booker to Obama triple play.
Despite what pundits say about Mr. Booker's performance on "Meet the Press," Mayor Booker played the shill so well—he deserves an academy award for Best Supporting Actor.
More importantly, Mr. Romney by focusing on his private sector experience is not effectively explaining how his solutions on China, energy, banking, and health care will work, make a difference and create jobs.
Sadly, with each passing day, Mr. Romney looks like another hopeful from Massachusetts—John Kerry. Both dress up well, but under the intense lights of a national campaign, easily outwitted by a wily incumbent.
Peter Morici is an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and widely published columnist. Follow him on Twitter @PMorici1.