Mitt Romney made his case Wednesday for the failure of the Obama years in the very place where the president will ask for four more in September: Charlotte, host city of the Democratic National Convention.
Obama, speaking at a community college in the critical swing state of Ohio, wrapped his economic message around this personal jab at Romney: “I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth.”
The general-election campaign is underway — and so are the attempts to get into each other’s head. Each candidate devoted Wednesday to economic arguments about why he should win in November and also why, for very personal reasons, the other should not.
Speaking to about 200 people across from the stadium where Obama will give his convention speech, Romney hammered the president for failing to make good on his promises. Reading from Obama’s address when he accepted his party’s nomination in Denver four years ago, Romney used the president’s words against him in a speech that aides billed as a “prebuttal” to Obama’s nominating address.
“Were a trusting people. We’re a hopeful people. But we’re not dumb, and we’re not going to fall for the same lines from the same person just because we’re in a different place,” Romney said.
Citing job losses and the rise in the national deficit, Romney predicted that Obama wouldn’t be quoting much from his address or giving a true picture of his administration’s record.
“What you won’t hear at that convention is that for the last 38 months unemployment has been above 8 percent, that we’ve had 24 million Americans that are out of work, have stopped looking for work or underemployment,” Romney said. “You won’t hear that since he gave that speech and became president that there have been 50,000 more job losses in North Carolina.”
With 15 electoral votes, North Carolina will be a key battleground state in the general election. Obama won it in 2008 by a margin of less than 14,000 votes, his narrowest win in the nation. He will need a strong turnout of Latinos, college-educated whites and African Americans to win again.
In Ohio on Wednesday, Obama sought to draw a stark contrast between his efforts to continue investing in what he described as the foundations of America’s economic strength and “the other side,” which, he said, would put an end to those investments in favor of granting tax breaks for the rich.
At a community college in hard-hit manufacturing country near Cleveland, Obama declared that his commitment to workforce training programs — programs, he said, that Republicans would gut — has helped thousands of laid-off workers find new jobs.
To underscore that argument, Obama took the not-too-subtle “silver spoon” swipe at Romney, adding that there remains a role for government to give everybody a “fair shot” — not just the wealthy.
“Investing in a community college is just like investing in a new road or new highway or broadband Internet,” Obama told a crowd of a few hundred at Lorain County Community College, west of Cleveland. “These are not grand schemes to redistribute wealth. They’ve been made by Democrats and Republicans for generations because they benefit all of us. That’s what leads to strong, durable economic growth.”
Lorain County has been among the hardest-hit regions in the country, particularly in the manufacturing sector. According to the White House, the county lost 11,500 jobs over the past three decades, all but 1,000 of them from factory closings.
But the county has rebounded in recent years, and its unemployment rate has dropped below 9 percent. Community college officials and the White House credit the workforce training program, in part: It boasts a 90 percent placement rate within three months of graduation.
Obama’s sharper, more personal dialogue with Romney comes after several weeks in which the president and his allies have been portraying the former Massachusetts governor as having a conservative core that is out of step with middle-class Americans.
Romney has been battered by Republican and Democratic foes alike for his tack to the right during the primary season, and even more for a suggestion by a campaign aide that once the general election is underway, the candidate could shake off some of those stances like an Etch a Sketch drawing.
The Obama campaign is trying to prevent that from happening. They cite Romney’s support for a gay-marriage ban; criminalization of abortion; an end to the DREAM Act, which grants a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants; and the notion that undocumented immigrants will self-deport as examples of positions out of step with most Americans.
“During the primaries, Governor Romney labeled himself the ‘ideal tea party candidate’ and ‘severely conservative’ and committed to a series of policies that reflect those labels,” said Ben LaBolt, Obama’s campaign spokesman.
Campaign officials also say that Romney has emphasized a set of positions — such as a proposal to lower taxes for the wealthiest Americans — that favor the rich over the middle class.
Republicans reacted swiftly to Obama’s remarks Wednesday, accusing him of class warfare and blaming others for his own shortcomings.
“One of the things that’s most disappointing to me in our president has been that over the past 31 / 2 years, he has engaged in constant efforts to divide America,” Romney said in his speech in Charlotte, which followed Obama’s. “And each day if there is a problem of some kind, he points to some group of Americans that must be responsible, never saying he’s responsible for the mistakes he’s made.”
Romney is sensitive to perceptions that he grew up wealthy, so Obama’s “silver spoon” remark could strike a nerve. On the campaign trail, Romney sometimes talks about his father growing up poor and driving across the American West looking for work.
When Mitt was born, the family was middle class, moving from Detroit to the tony suburb of Bloomfield Hills after Mitt was a teenager, when George Romney took over American Motors. Although Mitt’s parents helped fund his college and graduate education, and helped him and his wife, Anne, buy their first home, he did not inherit their wealth; he amassed a multimillion-dollar fortune on his own, working at Bain Capital.
Republicans also charged Obama with misrepresenting the details of the House Republican budget, which was authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) and has been embraced by Romney.
Although the plan does propose 5 percent cuts to discretionary spending — of which the workforce programs are a part — it remains unknown which programs would be cut.
“The president’s stagnant economy remains the number one threat to workers in the United States, and spreading falsehoods about our budget isn’t going to put a single American back to work,” said Ryan spokesman Gerrit Lansing.
Henderson reported from Charlotte. Staff writer Philip Rucker in Washington contributed to this report.