By Amie Parnes and Mike Lillis - 06/02/12 11:00 AM EDT
President Obama’s campaign is going full throttle with its attacks on Mitt Romney’s time at the private equity firm Bain Capital despite concerns from some Democrats that the strategy could backfire.
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Team Obama will continue to go after Romney’s record with the same intensity that's marked the last two weeks, which have seen the release of two advertisements slamming Romney and Bain Capital for purchasing companies that later shed jobs and shut down.
Jen Psaki, Obama's former deputy communications director, echoed that message.
Obama "will continue to highlight holes in Romney's record,” Psaki said. “People deserve to know about his record on the economy and laying out the case is a part of the campaign's message.
“It's something they'll continue to lay out,” she said.
A number of Democrats have voiced concerns with Obama’s strategy, warning that voters could view the attacks as a broad condemnation of private equity firms rather than a focused rebuke of Romney's management style – an interpretation that could reinforce perceptions, encouraged by Republicans, that Obama is anti-free market.
“I don't think we ought to get into the position where we say, ‘This is bad work. This is good work,’” former President Bill Clinton said during an interview Thursday on CNN's Piers Morgan program. “There's no question that in terms of getting up and going to the office and basically performing the essential functions of the office, a man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Clinton was not the first Democrat to voice reservations. Cory Booker – the mayor of Newark, N.J., and a vocal Obama supporter – said last month he was “nauseated” by the anti-Bain ads, equating them to proposed GOP attacks on Obama through his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Some former Obama administration officials conceded the strategy of attacking Romney's corporate success is a risky one.
“It's something the campaign has to be a bit concerned about,” said one former aide. “Their message is getting a bit muddled. Even though they're saying they're not attacking private equity, that perception obviously is out there. So it might not be the best strategy.”
Another former White House official said, “There's definitely a question tactically if this is the best thing the campaign could be focused on right now. Is it working? It's hard to say. They just started it.”
The Romney campaign has been eager to add to the doubts, pointing to the Clinton and Booker remarks as evidence that slamming Bain is a losing strategy.
"Its been clear that the president's line of attack has backfired. There’s been a backlash," a senior Romney aide said. "They can't run on their own record so they're attacking [Romney's] business record and his time as governor. Who knows where they’re going to go next?"
It's hardly the first time Romney's time at Bain has surfaced on the campaign trail. In 1994, when Romney challenged the late-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) in Massachusetts, Kennedy ran a series of television ads attacking Romney's actions as head of the firm. The ads featured short clips of interviews with workers laid off after their companies were acquired by Bain.
"[Bain] basically cut our throats," one worker said in one of those ads.
The second former Obama official said the current attacks are premised on the success of Kennedy's ads.
Romney was also hammered over Bain during the GOP primary, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry lobbing charges that, under Romney's watch, the firm had "looted" companies to make a buck.
"Those of us who believe in free markets and those of us who believe that, in fact, the whole goal of investment is entrepreneurship and job creation, we find it pretty hard to justify rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company," Gingrich said in New Hampshire in January.
The issue of Romney's corporate resume has also been a prominent one on Capitol Hill this election year, with unemployment still hovering above 8 percent and leaders in both parties tossing accusations that the other is to blame – a debate that only intensified Friday following release of May's dismal jobs report.
A number of House Democrats said this week that they're 100 percent behind Obama's attacks on Romney's record at Bain. They contend Romney was more vulture capitalist than venture capitalist, and they see Obama's message melding perfectly with their notion that Republicans want to help the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
"Romney presents his experience at Bain as preparation to be president, and the reality is that the prime goal of Bain Capital is to make Mitt Romney and investors a ton of money," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said Friday.
"I don't think that the American people agree that maximizing profits for investors is the experience you want [in a president]," Van Hollen added. "The president's job is to maximize jobs."
Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, agreed. Larson said there's nothing inherently wrong with private equity companies or the business philosophy under which they operate. But that philosophy, he was quick to add, should not be applied to government.
"Private equity plays an important role in capital formation and in the ability of people to invest and take risk. [But] would you run government like you run a [private] equity company? No," Larson said. "Voters are sophisticated enough to distinguish … between governing and managing a business."
Rep. Barney Frank (Mass.), senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, expressed surprise that anyone would suggest that attacks on Bain's tactics should be off-limits.
"If it's not a legitimate issue then Romney's the problem, because he's been talking about his record [at Bain]," Frank said. "You can't decide to talk about what you think are only the good parts of your record and not have anybody talk about the other parts."
Providing additional evidence that Democrats see Bain as a political liability for Romney, Frank – who's retiring at the end of this year – said he's working on a campaign slogan that would tie Romney, Bain and congressional Republicans all together.
"There may be a kind of a grammatical point that the Democrats may be making about the Republicans," Frank said this week. "Bain, Boehner, and I've got to think what's 'Bainest.'
"We may have a contest."