President Obama on Monday defended his reelection campaign’s aggressive attacks on Mitt Romney’s private-equity background, which he described as a central issue in the campaign.
“The reason this is relevant to the campaign is my opponent, Gov. Romney, his main calling card for why he should be president is his business experience,” Obama said at a press conference after the conclusion of the NATO summit in Chicago.
“He’s not going out touting his experience in Massachusetts. He’s saying, ‘I’m a business guy, I know how to fix it,’ and this is his business,” Obama said.
The attack came after the Obama campaign came under pressure from some of its allies over its frequent criticism of Romney’s background at Bain Capital, the private-equity firm he founded.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, an Obama surrogate, said the Obama campaign attacks were “nauseating” during a Sunday appearance on “Meet the Press.” The previous week, former Obama auto czar Steve Rattner, who headed a private-equity firm, also criticized the Obama campaign over the issue.
Romney responded to Obama’s comments in a statement on Monday saying that the president “confirmed today that he will continue his attacks on the free enterprise system, which Mayor Booker and other leading Democrats have spoken out against.”
“What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty,” Romney said. “President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies. My campaign is offering a positive agenda to help America get back to work.”
But the president offered a forceful defense of his campaign strategy on Monday, the first time he has directly tackled the Bain attacks.
Calling out Romney by name — a rare practice during official events — Obama said the issue is not a “distraction,” adding that Romney’s background in private equity was fair game because it suggested the mindset Romney would have in taking on the economic issues as president.
“This is part of the debate that we’re going to be having in this election campaign, about ‘How do we create an economy where everybody from top to bottom, folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street, have a shot at success?’ ” Obama said.
During his remarks, Obama sought to define Romney as someone driven by profits, suggesting that his business background was unsuitable for the Oval Office.
At the same time, Obama clarified his view on private equity, saying that it is “set up to maximize profits, and that’s a healthy part of the free market.”
“That’s a part of the role of a lot of business people,” Obama explained. “That’s not unique to private equity. There are folks who do good work in that area and there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs.”
But, he added: “Their priority is to maximize profits and that’s not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers.”
Seeking to drive home the framework of his campaign — helping the middle class — Obama said his job as president “is not to simply maximize profits.”
“Your job is to make sure everyone has a fair shot,” he said. “If your main argument on how to grow the economy is that ‘I know how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about.”Obama’s campaign on Monday released the second ad in two weeks focused on Bain. Both ads have centered on companies purchased by Bain that later went bankrupt.
During the press conference, Obama acknowledged the dangers that Greece could pose for the U.S. economy as he’s locked in the midst of his reelection campaign.
“What happens in Greece has an impact here in the United States,” Obama said. “Businesses are more hesitant to invest if they see a lot of uncertainty looming across the Atlantic, because they’re not sure whether that’s going to mean a further global slowdown.”
He said there was consensus among the G-8 leaders that none of them wanted Greece to leave the eurozone.
Obama said he senses “greater urgency” from European leaders now than there was two years ago.
The president said he understood the challenge of the EU having to approve measures in all 17 member countries.
“I think about my one Congress, then I start thinking about 17 Congresses, and I start getting a little bit of a headache. It’s going to be challenging for them,” he said.
Before fielding questions from reporters, Obama devoted his opening statement to the main focus of the NATO summit: Afghanistan, where NATO is in the process of handing off security control to the Afghans by the end of 2014 and giving them the lead in combat by mid-2013.
Asked about the withdrawal timeline, Obama said there is never going to be an “optimal point” for U.S. troops to leave.
“The Afghan security forces themselves will not ever be prepared if they don’t start taking that responsibility,” Obama said. “Frankly, the large footprint we have in Afghanistan over time can be counterproductive.”
Heading into the summit, one of the major issues for NATO was the reopening of supply routes with Pakistan, which were closed last November after NATO troops killed 24 Pakistani troops on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
There have been ongoing negotiations between the United States and Pakistan about the routes — which are important for moving equipment out of Afghanistan as forces draw down there — and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari was a last-minute invite to the NATO summit.
Zardari spoke briefly with Obama on Monday, but an agreement was not reached between the two sides before the summit’s conclusion Monday, which Obama said was not expected to happen.
“Neither country is going to have the kind of security, stability and prosperity that it needs unless they can resolve some of these outstanding issues and join in common purpose with the international community in making sure that these regions are not harboring extremists,” Obama said.