President Obama’s campaign scrambled to combat Republican efforts to highlight his “you didn’t build that” remark — a sign there are concerns the story could have legs far into the election cycle.
Team Obama released a new television ad late Tuesday with the president himself directly addressing the controversy. And the Democratic National Committee circulated a memo Wednesday detailing how it would respond to the GOP messaging.
“Obama did for Romney what Romney couldn’t do for himself, which is to create a clear contrast and unlock emotions on the key issue of the campaign,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “It helps Romney with independents, with GOPers and with white, working-class Democrats who needed an economic message that they could rally around.”
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In fact, Romney supporters have quickly made “I built that” signs a mainstay of campaign rallies. On Wednesday, the presumptive GOP nominee’s campaign held 24 separate events across 12 battleground states featuring small-business owners who say they’re angry over Obama’s economic philosophy.
Republican eagerness to pounce on the perceived gaffe isn’t surprising, considering that the summer doldrums preceding an election are often fraught with such semantic battles. But the Obama campaign’s willingness to engage is an indication that officials in Chicago are concerned about damage control.
On Tuesday night, the president’s campaign team released a new television ad where the president unequivocally dismissed the attacks from Romney.
“Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they’re flat-out wrong,” Obama says in the commercial. “Of course Americans build their own businesses. Every day, hardworking people sacrifice to meet a payroll, create jobs and make our economy run. And what I said was that we need to stand behind them, as America always has.”
And, in a memo circulated to reporters by DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse, Democrats pledged to “turn the page” on the issue.
One attempt on Wednesday was an effort to turn the conversation back to Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. Obama campaign officials highlighted a report from The Associated Press that showed the presumptive Republican nominee continued to have regular contact with his partners in the firm after his 1999 departure date.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki argued the story shows “a continued pattern of secrecy around his involvement there and his time there” and encouraged reporters to read it.
But the Bain story didn’t gain traction — yet.
The Democratic posturing has also given the Romney campaign something to crow about — given that just last week it was reeling from questions about his tenure at Bain and the release of his tax records.
Republicans are clearly enjoying the Democrats’ discomfort.
“This is something that can keep the base fired up at least until the convention, and maybe longer,” said O’Connell. “We’re in the dog days of summer, and you need something that can harness supporters in a concentrated way. The Obama team is smart, instead of arguing about it, to try to get out there and fight back, but it’s going to carry for awhile.”
“I think there’s definitely a little bit of panic in Chicago right now because they realize this comment has clearly struck a chord with the American people,” Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer said Wednesday on CNN.
And Romney aides, in emails, described the Obama campaign as “in panic mode.”
Meanwhile, other Republican candidates were looking to draft off the success of Romney’s attacks. In Massachusetts’s pivotal Senate race, Sen. Scott Brown (R) looked to tag Democratic rival Elizabeth Warren with the president’s remarks.
“Even as Obama starts to walk back his ‘you didn’t build that’ comment with his new TV ad, Warren is doubling down — she is, after all, the originator of this idea,” said Brown campaign spokesman Colin Reed.
But while Obama’s phrase — and the Romney attacks — have been dominating the storyline, there are some indications the stumble won’t be a game-changer that substantially undermines the president’s reelection chances.
First of all, the news cycle, which is notoriously fickle, could change easily. The Summer Olympics are starting. And Romney’s overseas trip threatens to draw the candidate substantially off-message just as the attack is reaching a fevered pitch.
Plus, any news out of Romney’s trip could drown out his campaign’s attack.
There were already signs of that Wednesday, when Romney landed in London and was besieged by questions over an anonymous comment in the British press, attributed to a campaign adviser, suggesting Romney was better able to navigate the “special relationship” between the United States and England because of his understanding of “Anglo-Saxon heritage.”
His campaign spent the day denying the remark.
And Romney’s stops, including meetings with British, Israeli, Palestinian and Polish leaders, offer few opportunities to score political points by attacking the president.
It’s also unclear whether the story will have a tangible effect on the polls. While Obama seemed to dominate early July with his attacks on Bain Capital, national polling showed little change. The two men are still running neck and neck.