By Jonathan Easley - 08/10/12 06:46 PM EDT
The White House press corps turned up the heat over a controversial ad from a super-PAC supporting President Obama on Friday, pressuring White House spokesman Jay Carney for answers on the president’s view of the ad.
The press conference was dominated by questions on the ad, requiring Carney to spend the bulk of his time dodging the issue.
“I’m not going to become a judge and assessor of every third-party ad that’s out there,” Carney added later.
Although the ad, produced by the pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA, has not yet aired, it has received wide play and coverage online and on cable television, and it is threatening to become a liability for the Obama campaign at a time when the president has seen his fortunes rising in the polls.
On Friday, the Romney campaign held a press conference to discuss a new campaign ad it released, calling into question the president’s character for not denouncing the super-PAC ad.
“What does it say about a president’s character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman’s death for political gain?” says the narrator in the ad. “What does it say about a president’s character when he had his campaign raise money for the ad then stood by as his top aides were caught lying about it? Doesn’t America deserve better than a president who will say or do anything to stay in power?”
The super-PAC ad features a steelworker who used to work for a company that was taken over by Bain Capital, the investment firm founded by Mitt Romney. The worker lost his job and health insurance, and the ad insinuates a link between that and his wife's subsequent death from cancer.
Priorities USA is run by former White House aide Bill Burton.
At issue is more than the melodramatic nature of the ad — independent fact-checkers have noted that the cancer patient featured in the ad died six years after Bain bought her husband's company, that she had her own health insurance through her employer, and that Romney was not in charge of the investment firm when her husband was let go.
The president and his campaign have avoided comment on the commercial, saying they are not legally allowed to coordinate with the super-PAC, and Carney reiterated this defense on multiple occasions Friday.
But further complicating the Obama team’s effort to remain at arms-length from the ad was campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki's admittance that the campaign was familiar with Joe Soptic, the widower featured in the commercial. On Wednesday, Psaki had said the campaign was unfamiliar with his story — until journalists then pointed out he had been featured in an Obama ad and conference call with reporters.
“No one is denying that he was in one of our campaign ads,” she said Thursday. “He was on a conference call telling his story, which speaks to what many, many people in this country have gone through as there have been layoffs and they've had their benefits reduced.”
On Friday, MSNBC’s Chuck Todd told Carney the Obama campaign’s attempts to distance itself form the super-PAC were additionally flimsy because White House senior adviser David Plouffe had attended a fundraiser for the group earlier this year.
“As I understand the law, we have no control over third-party groups,” Carney said again. “I’ve made my point and I’m looking forward to the press conference for my counterpart.”
Carney consistently looked to turn the argument around on the Romney campaign, which recently produced a commercial claiming the president is trying to gut welfare reform.
Carney said that unlike the super-PAC ad, the Romney welfare commercial — also criticized by independent fact-checkers — had “millions and millions of dollars behind it.”
“There is a substantial difference between a false ad produced and paid for by the campaign and ads produced by third-party groups,” Carney said. “I’ve made clear our views on the utter misrepresentation of the president’s policy in the Romney campaign ads broadcasted in states across nation.”
Carney said he believes Americans are “sophisticated” enough to distinguish between super-PAC ads and ads that have been approved by the campaigns.
“Most Americans are pretty sophisticated now,” he said. “I feel for them because it’s such a barrage ... but I think that Americans are pretty sophisticated, they probably do overwhelmingly understand the distinction.”
The Romney campaign is itself no stranger to super-PAC advertising controversies. Throughout the primaries, Romney’s challengers lamented the barrage of third-party ads that buried them in the run-up to critical primaries.
“Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staff running the PAC,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said at a debate in January. “It is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC. And you know some of the ads aren't true. Just say that. It's straightforward.”
Romney acknowledged that the super-PACs were run by his supporters, but refused to denounce them, saying his team is legally not allowed to coordinate with the groups.
—Justin Sink contributed.