WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney can speak with authority when they complain about their words being taken out of context. They've not only been victims of the tactic, they've also used it to great effect themselves.
In an unforgiving election season, every sentence spoken by the candidates is sliced and diced by the opposition for political gain, and unflattering statistics are cherry-picked to pack the most devastating punch. The campaigns pounce on any ill-advised remark and cry foul when their own slip-ups get similar treatment.
The tussle over recent comments by Obama and Romney on the economy is a skirmish in which both sides have lobbed out-of-context complaints after snippets of their words were isolated and held up to ridicule.
Obama, at a news conference June 8, spoke six words that quickly came back to bite him: "The private sector is doing fine."
Romney's response boomeranged, too. Noting that the president had said the country needs more firefighters, police officers and teachers, Romney said the public thinks "it's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
Does Obama really think the private sector is doing fine?
Does Romney really want to slash firefighters, police and teachers?
Both campaigns went into overdrive, trying to turn their opponent's quotes into votes by quickly churning out mocking web videos and a barrage of caustic emails.
Romney said of Obama, "Is he really that out of touch?"
The Obama campaign repackaged Romney's remarks about public workers as "Mitt Romney's Job Elimination Plan."
No matter that both candidates quickly came back before the cameras to try to explain what they really meant.
Obama said he'd meant to highlight job growth in the private sector that was providing good economic momentum. Romney said it would be "completely absurd" to think he wants to cut police, firefighters and teachers.
Obama suggested there will be plenty more back-and-forthing in the context game.
"There will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about," he predicted. "You may have heard I recently made my own unique contribution to that process. It wasn't the first time. It won't be the last."
Already, 2012 is shaping up as a huge year on this count.
Taking quotes out of context "has been the dominant tactic of deception in the campaign," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, author of "Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy" and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "It has been used in the past, but not this extensively."
The center's flackcheck.org website calls out candidates and campaign groups for taking words and statistics out of context.
Jamieson says the thrashing that Obama took over his "private sector" remark amounts to a case of what goes around, comes around.
In 2008, Obama's campaign was merciless when Republican rival John McCain said during the midst of economic turmoil that "the fundamentals of the economy are strong."
McCain was right, and he was trying to serve as a voice of reassurance to Americans nervous about what might happen next. But Obama's campaign successfully turned the words into ads that painted the Republican as out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary people.
"That repeatedly aired ad increased the likelihood that people thought that McCain wasn't competent to handle the economy, and that is dramatically out of context," Jamieson said. "McCain's statement was inarticulate, but appropriate."
Obama's camp has been equally aggressive at getting maximum mileage out some of Romney's cringe-worthy comments.
There was this: "I'm not concerned about the very poor."
And this: "Corporations are people."
And this: "I like being able to fire people."
Romney has explanations for them all. The firing remark, for example, had nothing to do with Romney's corporate past. It was his way of saying that consumers should be able to switch their health insurance if they're not getting good service from their current provider.
But many people will remember only the offending sound bites, recirculated by the candidate's critics.
Romney's campaign, in turn, pulled off its own blatant case of out-of-context advertising when it released a spot last November that had Obama stating, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."
In fact, Obama was quoting McCain.
The full 2008 quote from Obama: "Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.'"
Jamieson said the damage from out-of-context quotes goes beyond the misleading impressions that are cast, making candidates wary of speaking freely.
It also can be a distraction from the real issues that divide the candidates.
Obama and Romney do have fundamental differences over how to handle the U.S. economy, but that can get lost in the finger-pointing over who's misquoting whom.
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