President Obama is taking subliminal shots at Mitt Romney, over and over again.
The White House insists the president isn’t in campaign mode. And in the tradition of most incumbents, Obama never mentions Romney by name.
But he hasn’t missed an opportunity, from his State of the Union address to the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, to jab at his probable opponent.
“It’s not even subliminal,” said Martin Sweet, visiting professor of political science at Northwestern University. “He’s been very obvious about it, going after Romney on a variety of issues.”
The attacks highlight the White House’s focus on Romney as its likely opponent in the general election and suggest Obama is paying attention to the campaign despite protestations he isn’t.
“If you ever believed Obama when he said he’s not watching the primary race, now you know that’s not true, and if you ever needed proof that Obama is thin-skinned, now you have it,” said a source close to Romney.
Most of the attacks fit Team Obama’s larger strategy of casting Romney as an out-of-touch billionaire.
A day after Romney commented that he was “not concerned about the very poor,” Obama used his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast to call for society to help the poor and needy, implicitly reminding the world of Romney’s gaffe.
“It’s ... about the biblical call to care for the least of these, for the poor, for those at the margins of our society,” Obama said on Thursday. “To answer the responsibility we’re given in Proverbs to ‘speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.’ ”
At the White House on Thursday afternoon, spokesman Jay Carney said the “poor” reference was not a direct response to Romney, adding that that would suggest that every conversation about the poor in houses of worship would have a political context. The president “was explaining how his faith guides him. It was not a political event,” Carney said.
At last week’s State of the Union address, Obama all but called out Romney, who had released his tax returns a day earlier, by renewing his call for the “Buffett Rule,” named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
“Do we want to keep these tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans?” Obama asked. “Or do we want to keep our investments in everything else, like education and medical research, a strong military and care for our veterans? Because if we’re serious about paying down our debt, we can’t do both.”
Since then, as Romney’s campaign has gained steam, the president has cranked up his messaging, sometimes while touting his own accomplishments.
At the Washington Auto Show this week, Obama sat in the driver’s seat of several new models and bragged about helping bail out two Detroit automakers. At the same time, he implicitly taunted Romney.
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“It’s good to remember that there were some folks who were willing to let this industry die,” Obama said, implicitly referencing an editorial Romney wrote. “Because of folks coming together, we are now back in a place where we can compete with any car company in the world.”
Obama was at it again the following day at an event where he proposed a new housing agenda. He used Romney’s words almost verbatim.
“It is wrong for anyone to suggest that the only option for struggling, responsible homeowners is to sit and wait for the housing market to hit bottom,” Obama said.
In October, Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board that the government should not try and stop the foreclosure process, but should “let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
Obama’s line, spoken before a small crowd at a community center in Northern Virginia, seemed to go over well, even if some didn’t exactly know to whom Obama was referring.
Sweet and other observers say the subtle messaging will resonate in a small crowd with members who follow the every move and machination of politics.
“What Obama is trying to do is draw lines in the sand while he attempts to test his message and see how effective it is,” Sweet said, adding that Obama has time to work out the kinks in his campaign while the GOP primary process drags on.
Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said the attacks highlight Obama’s advantage as an incumbent: He can “inject himself into the debate unobstructed whenever he wants.”
Republicans, however, say the messaging tack is proof that Obama is in campaign mode.
“It doesn’t matter who the Republican candidate is, President Obama and his team have decided their reelection strategy is to attack Republicans instead of talk about their own record,” said Kirsten Kukowski, a press secretary for the Republican National Committee.
Romney’s camp thinks the attacks help its candidate.
“Obama clearly sees Romney as the biggest threat to his reelection, so he is taking the opportunity to engage him now,” said the source close to Romney. “Boston does a cartwheel every time that happens, though. It puts Romney on the same plane as the president and gives him a chance to draw a contrast as well on whatever the issue is.”
Sweet also argued that Romney actually gets more out of the attacks than does Obama.
“When you’re being shot at, people assume you’re the nominee,” Sweet said.
The White House effort extends to the press office and Carney, who rarely mentions Romney’s name.
On Wednesday, after Romney’s comments on the “poor” circulated on the cable news networks for hours, Carney simply stated Obama’s position that the recession “did harm to Americans of all kinds.”
“Middle class and poor Americans were hit hard by the recession,” Carney said, before adding: “I don’t have anything more on the Republican primary.”
— Posted at 2:27 p.m. and updated at 8:12 p.m.