WASHINGTON — With good reason, presidents have long been said to hold the power of the bully pulpit. But when President Obama sought to wield it on Friday, by calling a White House news conference to showcase his concern for the economy and Republicans’ refusal to work with him, he was the one who ended up getting pummeled.
Obama Speaks About Job Growth
By late afternoon, Mr. Obama was forced to clarify one line from his morning session with reporters — “the private sector is doing fine” — after Congressional Republicans and his presidential rival, Mitt Romney, had seized on the comment to criticize Mr. Obama as out-of-touch and detached from the millions of Americans who cannot find jobs or have given up looking.
“Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine. That’s the reason I had the press conference,” Mr. Obama said in clarifying his earlier remark when asked about Mr. Romney’s criticism during an Oval Office appearance with the president of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III.
“There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak and too many homes underwater,” Mr. Obama said. “And that’s precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference.” He ended, “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. And so far, all we’ve heard are additional tax cuts to the folks who are doing fine.”
But for the day at least, the damage was done, as Republicans hijacked the news cycle with their barrage against Mr. Obama’s six words in a professorial 29-minute exchange. While the metaphor of the bully pulpit originated with President Theodore Roosevelt about a century ago and generally remains apt, it does not allow for a 21st-century media environment of constant cable television chatter, blogging and instant Internet videos that empower a president’s opponents to bully back.
Campaigning in Iowa, Mr. Romney called Mr. Obama’s statement “an extraordinary miscalculation and misunderstanding by a president who is out-of-touch. And we’re going to take back this country and get America working again.”
What was worse for Mr. Obama, the controversy was the capstone of an already bad week that had started the Friday before with a disappointing monthly jobs report showing an increase of just 69,000 jobs in May. There had been a similar media commotion over comments by former President Bill Clinton that were unhelpful to the Obama campaign (he, too, clarified himself later), a defeat for Democrats in Wisconsin’s election to recall the Republican governor and the latest monthly fund-raising reports showing that Mr. Romney and the Republican Party for the first time had out-raised Mr. Obama and his party.
Mr. Obama’s point at his news conference was that for more than two years, monthly jobs reports have shown growth in the private sector, but continuing cutbacks in the public sector as state and local governments slash jobs in their struggle to balance their budgets; the public sector — not the private sector — most needs additional government help.
He argued that “if Republicans want to be helpful” as Europe’s financial crisis again threatens the American economy, they should quit opposing proposals in his jobs plan of last September that would aid states so they can keep teachers and first-responders at work and finance public-works projects to employ construction workers left jobless by the 2008 housing bust.
Mr. Obama’s comment, in context, was: “We’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government — oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.”
Republicans hope they can turn Mr. Obama’s “doing fine” line into the sort of bumper-sticker comment that would damage him with swing voters much like his 2008 rival, Senator John McCain, was hurt when he said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Mr. McCain, however, spoke in September 2008 as the financial system was already imploding, and his comment underscored his well-known and self-acknowledged unfamiliarity with economic policy.
Seeking to even the day’s score, Democrats quickly mounted a counteroffensive by the same cable and Internet outlets to amplify one of Mr. Romney’s remarks on Friday.
Speaking of Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney said: “He wants another stimulus. He wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of Wisconsin? The American people did: It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
Ben LaBolt, an Obama campaign spokesman, said in a statement that “Mitt Romney promised to eliminate even more public-sector jobs.”
Mr. Obama’s news conference also provoked Republicans to revive their charge that he is blaming Europe’s ills for slow growth here to distract from his own culpability.
“He used his old standby excuse — headwinds — for his failure on the economy,” said Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
Yet many economists say that Europe is a big factor in the American outlook. AllianceBernstein, an asset management firm in Manhattan, wrote to clients and reporters on Friday that it had slightly lowered its forecast for economic growth this year “amid increasing international headwinds facing the U.S. economy.” And Bank of America Merrill Lynch said “the uncertainty shock from Europe is building rapidly, undercutting both U.S. and global growth.”