President Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s fight over the relative merits of government and business is rapidly revealing the main battle line of the presidential election.
The president and his Republican challenger have spent recent days exchanging rhetorical fire, defining themselves and each other on the crucial issue of the economy, upon which the decision of a recession-weary electorate is likely to hinge.
With renewed vigor, Romney on Tuesday attacked Obama as opposing success.
“President Obama attacks success and therefore under President Obama we have less success,” Romney said.
He went on to criticize as “startling and revealing” Obama’s remarks about the role of the public sector in infrastructure investments, in which the president, discussing roads and bridges last week, said, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”
“The idea to say that Steve Jobs didn’t build Apple, that Henry Ford didn’t build Ford Motors, that Papa John didn’t build Papa John’s ... it’s not just foolishness, it’s insulting to every entrepreneur in America,” Romney said at a campaign rally.
Speaking shortly afterwards in Texas, Obama, whose campaign believes it has gained traction by attacking Romney’s background in private equity, underlined his argument that Romney’s business experience leads him to support tax and trade policies that have led to offshoring and inequality.
And in a rebuttal to Romney, he defended his support for the private sector while calling for a greater role for government than his opponent.
“I believe in individual initiative and entrepreneurship and risk-taking,” Obama said. “And I believe that the free market is the greatest system on Earth to create wealth and prosperity. But just like Abraham Lincoln said, there are some things we do better together than we do on our own.”
Romney’s and Obama’s contrasting governing philosophies were on full display with their remarks, and give voters a distinct choice in November.
Obama argues government should play a role in the economy, and that a Romney presidency would lead to unfettered capitalism that would hurt the middle class. Romney argues government must get out of the way, and that four more years of Obama would be an anchor weighing down the economy.
In some ways, the split represents the classic divide between conservatives and liberals. But the presidential election will be a mad scramble for independent-minded voters in key swing states, meaning that for a candidate to succeed, he’ll need to sell a skeptical American public on both his personal qualifications and his vision on the interplay between business and government — while dismissing his rival’s.
Polls show the economy remains by far the most important issue to American voters. A poll released last month by Gallup found that more than two-thirds of voters identified economic concerns as the most important problem facing the country today. The recent battles to define the confines of that debate — in some of the strongest and sharpest terms employed so far this political cycle — underscore the weight the issue carries with each side.
The negative tone also highlights Team Obama’s desire to prevent the election from being a referendum on the president, and to turn it into a choice between him and Romney.
A “choice” election would be a better dynamic for the president, given the nation’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate. No sitting president since Franklin Roosevelt has won reelection with a jobless rate that high.
Republicans in recent weeks have expressed some frustration about Romney’s campaign as Obama and Democrats have depicted his private-sector experience and his tax policies as predatory and ultimately bad for middle-class Americans.
“I don’t want pioneers of outsourcing in the White House; I want somebody who believes in insourcing,” Obama said Tuesday.
Romney on Tuesday sought to turn the focus back to Obama’s view of the economy, which he hammered as naive and un-American. Romney dismissed Obama’s economic thinking as “foreign” on Tuesday and pointed to connections between Obama campaign donors and federal contracts awarded by the administration.
Romney told the Pennsylvania crowd that traditional American capitalism was “very different than the way they’ve done it in some other countries, where the government comes in, and based on who you know in government, who’s a friend in government, you get money from them, you get taxpayer dollars.”
“That’s happening in this country today,” Romney continued. “I am ashamed to say that we’re seeing our president hand out money to the businesses of campaign contributors.”
Romney’s remarks were something of a softened version of arguments made by top surrogate John Sununu during a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. Sununu blasted the president as coming from a “felon environment” in Chicago and suggested the president should “learn how to be an American.”
The Obama campaign punched back, using the attacks to again hit Romney on his connection to Bain Capital and to undermine his credibility on the economy.
“The Romney campaign has officially gone off the deep end,” spokeswoman Lis Smith said. “The question is what else they’ll pull to avoid answering serious questions about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and investments in foreign tax havens and offshore accounts. This meltdown and over-the-top rhetoric won’t make things better — it only calls attention to how desperate they are to change the conversation.”
— Amie Parnes contributed reporting from San Antonio.