It helped only a little that Obama tried to take back the comment hours later. “It’s absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine,” he told reporters after a meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
Romney pounced on Obama’s comment, calling it “an extraordinary miscalculation” and adding, “Is he really that out of touch?”
Wasn’t that the Democrats’ line about Romney?
What’s also remarkable about the double stumble by Obama and Clinton is that they were both off script but in different ways. On Tuesday, the former president said the economy is so soft that it probably can’t afford the jolt of a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans and decided he had to recant to keep the White House happy. By Friday, the current president said the private sector is doing fine and then had to take it back because, well, because who believes it’s doing all that well?
Clinton ran into trouble when he suggested the economy was so fragile that it might be good to temporarily extend the Bush tax cuts for all taxpayers, including the wealthy. The former president later told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer he was sorry for the uproar he had created.
Clinton claimed he didn’t realize nothing had to be done about those tax cuts until the end of the year, an extraordinary comment by a politician who said not that long ago that he spends at least an hour a day studying the economy and whose ability to absorb and synthesize vast quantities of information still makes him the party’s best explainer in chief.
There was no good explanation from the president as to why he said what he said.
Democrats tried to scramble back late Friday by pointing to something Romney had said earlier in the day. “He wants another stimulus,” Romney said of Obama. “He wants to hire more government workers. He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message in Wisconsin? The American people did. It’s time for us to cut back on government and help the American people.”
A barrage of Democratic statements attacking Romney for attacking public servants followed. A Romney adviser later explained that the candidate was making the point that Obama’s only answer to the economy is more government and more public-sector workers, rather than policies that help private-sector job creators. That was a more elegant way of making the point than the language Romney used on the campaign trail.
What conclusions can be drawn from this week? One is that Obama and the Democrats ought not to underestimate the challenge they face from Romney and the economy. Obama’s team has weathered problems in the past — during his presidency and in the 2008 campaign. They pride themselves on not panicking when things aren’t going well or when their Democratic allies start to get nervous.
But there can be times when the luck runs out, or when indifference in the face of turbulence can prevent a campaign from examining whether something needs fixing. Obama’s team believes the attacks on Bain and on Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts also will have the desired effect. At the moment, Romney advisers have started to sense wobbliness in a campaign they have regarded as being supremely steady in the past.
There is a broader issue raised by the kind of week that just ended. The general election was billed as a potential debate between candidates from parties with starkly different worldviews on economic principles and the role of government. So far it has been a Twitter war. Is this the best voters can expect between now and November?