Barack Obama's assertion today that the private sector is "doing fine" may be an important pivot in the race for president, a moment when Mitt Romney finally succeeded in casting the president as basically out of touch with Americans' economic woes.
That may not be fair — Obama was making the point that the public sector has been a major drag on job growth — but it is certainly a taste of Obama's own medicine.
The moment reminded me of nothing more than that fatal morning of September 15, 2008, when John McCain pronounced that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.”
Obama’s aides immediately saw the power of the moment, furiously distributing the sound byte and completing the portrait of McCain as the wrong man for a moment of financial crisis.
McCain’s aides and defenders, at first, tried to add nuance: McCain, we were told, was referring to the real American economy, making the case that the crisis was primarily in the financial sector; another aide argued that McCain was doing the responsible, presidential thing of reassuring Americans at a bad time.
McCain’s aides concluded, however, that neither of those subtle explanations could work politically, so they went with a risible bit of spin. McCain rushed out to explain that afternoon he’d said “fundamentals” he meant “people.”
"My opponents may disagree, but those fundamentals of America are strong," the Republican offered. "No one can match an American worker. Our workers sell more goods to more markets than any other on earth. Our workers have always been the strength of our economy, and they remain the strength of our economy today."
Whether the private sector is actually “doing fine” depends on where you sit. The markets, in particular, are doing nicely. Obama's dual problem is the complacency that phrase projects, the sense that satisfactory is good enough; and the difficulty of making the case to people who are feeling a bad economy that the "private sector" — which many think of as "the economy" — isn't the problem. Obama has not succeeded in selling an expansive Keynesian vision of an aggressive government role, and he's mostly stopped trying, and so his comment sounds as out of touch now as McCain's did almost four years ago.
And former McCain aides, now, are relishing the moment.
"McCain was trying to calm people at a moment of real crisis — i think his intentions were good," one former top aide said in an email. "Obama's just trying to build support for raising taxes and make the case for his own stewardship."
Another former McCain aide was blunter.
"We very much look forward watching Team Romney put Obama's head in a vice over this," he emailed "What goes around comes around, assholes."
And the RNC has released an attack video that seems to follow an identical template to Obama's 2008 instant attack.