By Amie Parnes - 05/15/12 12:19 AM EDT
President Obama sought to turn Mitt Romney’s business background against him on Monday by launching an aggressive attack on his years in private equity.
The effort included a new television ad focused on the shuttering of GST Steel, a Missouri steel mill purchased, then closed — with a loss of more than 750 jobs — by Bain Capital, the investment firm founded by Romney.
Romney’s campaign, seemingly ready for the Obama attack, fired back with an ad that heralded his leadership at Bain while trumpeting the success of another steel mill.
“One of the hardest things to do is move up a socioeconomic status in a generation. …
[B]ecause of this company, I’m able to do that with my family,” one steelworker says in the Romney ad. “If that’s not the American Dream, I don’t know what is.”
Romney argues that his record at Bain shows why he’d be a better steward of the economy than Obama. His campaign frequently notes that he helped create nearly 100,000 jobs through companies such as the office supply giant Staples, one of several firms turned around by Bain.
While GST failed, Romney’s campaign believes its candidate’s overall record on job creation contrasts well with Obama, who added to the public debt but still presides over a country with 8.1 percent unemployment and tepid job growth.
Political observers say Monday’s back-and-forth highlights the growing war between the two campaigns and parties over who can run the economy better. The fight on Monday was also focused on a specific group of voters —white, blue-collar workers, or so-called Reagan Democrats.
“Obama is trying to recapture a group that was once a Democratic stronghold,” said Martin Sweet, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University. “For Romney, he’s playing in a similar vein, but more in a defensive posture than offensive.”
The new television ad, which will air in five swing states, tells the story of the steel mill’s closing.
“If he’s gonna run the country the way he ran our business, I wouldn’t want him there,” one steelworker says in the Obama ad. “He would be so out of touch with the average person in this country.”
Gingrich’s attacks on Romney’s history at GST Steel had the former Massachusetts governor on the defensive during the Republican primary.
Cutter maintained the examination of Romney’s business dealings is relevant because it “tells us about what kind of president he would be.”
“This is about the values Romney lived by,” she said. “This is about whether Romney’s business experience qualifies him to make the right decisions as president.
“What exactly happened at Bain Capital that gives Romney the experience to run a national economy?” she said.
Still, the president’s focus on Bain comes with some problems.
Obama’s former auto czar, Steven Rattner, called Team Obama’s latest ad campaign “unfair.” Speaking on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Rattner said that liquidations are “part of capitalism.” And Ohio Sen. Rob Portman (R) rushed to Romney’s defense on Monday, saying that Romney wasn’t responsible for the steel mill’s closing.
“Maybe I am missing something, but that is capitalism,” Portman said, according to Yahoo News. “It’s the free market.
“That wasn’t a Bain issue,” Portman said. “It was a national economic issue. Steel companies were in trouble.”
Cutter said Obama’s campaign isn’t taking an issue with private equity.
“No one is questioning the private-equity industry as a whole,” she said.
But she said the steelworkers, who were left unemployed after the mill closed, “really lost out and Romney did not.”
“A president like that would be a disaster for the middle class,” she said.
Romney had left Bain by the time the Missouri steel company closed, but Cutter said Romney should still be held accountable because he set the deal “in motion.”
“It was his structure that was put in place, and he still was listed as either the CEO or president of the company,” Cutter said. “He was still making profits off this deal.”
Democrats are also connected to Bain, which could complicate efforts to hurt Romney by highlighting his record there. The Hill reported earlier this year that Bain employees have given Democratic candidates and party committees more than $1.2 million, compared to the $480,000 received by GOP candidates and party committees.
The Romney campaign attempted to counter the attack ad earlier on Monday, blaming Obama for supporting “bad ideas” like Solyndra, a company that received loans from the federal government before declaring bankruptcy in 2011.
“We welcome the Obama campaign’s attempt to pivot back to jobs and a discussion of their failed record,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign. “President Obama has many questions to answer as to why his administration used the stimulus to reward wealthy campaign donors with taxpayer money for bad ideas like Solyndra, but 23 million Americans are still struggling to find jobs.
“If the Obama administration was less concerned with pleasing its wealthy donors and more concerned with creating jobs, America would be much better off,” Saul said.