There was a sense early Monday that President Obama was on the defensive about his campaign's attack on rival Mitt Romney's business record with Bain Capital. Newark, New Jersey mayor Cory Booker, an Obama surrogate, caused a stir on Sunday by defending private equity in general and Bain in particular -- only to invite ridicule by later posting a "hostage tape" walkback of his call for the Obama campaign to lay off Bain. Then, on Monday, former Democratic Rep. Harold Ford Jr. said he agreed with what Booker originally said. A few hours later, the Romney campaign released a web video combining Booker, Ford, and earlier pro-private equity remarks by Steven Rattner, who ran the Obama administration's auto industry rescue effort.
By mid-day Monday, ABC News posted a story headlined, "Obama Campaign Does Damage Control After Dems Question Anti-Bain Strategy." The story seemed set: Team Obama had messed up.
But just a few hours later, at his news conference at the NATO summit in Chicago, President Obama did not retreat an inch on Bain -- he doubled down with a bold statement that the Bain issue would be central to the coming campaign.
"This is not a distraction," Obama said. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."
"My opponent, Gov. Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience," Obama said before the assembled world press. "He's not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts. He's saying, I'm a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business. And when you're president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot."
In one respect, Obama is correct about Romney. On the stump, the former Massachusetts governor has cited his business record far more than his governorship. So Romney's time at Bain Capital is certainly part of the campaign. But Obama's first two attacks on Romney's record, focusing on GST Steel and Ampad, are flawed at best. And more importantly, Obama's focus on Bain makes the president appear more concerned with attack ads than with what both sides recognize is the main issue in the campaign, the economy and jobs.
It's a point Romney hit hard in his response to the president. "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," the Romney statement 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."
In the long run, Romney's point will likely prevail, for the simple and obvious reason that Americans are deeply worried about jobs and the economy. (The combined figure of unemployed people who are looking for work and those who have given up looking is now at 14.5 percent.) Unless some other enormously important event intervenes, the voters' views on that issue -- not on Bain Capital -- will decide the campaign.
One last note. In his response to Obama, Romney said, as he has many times in the past, that attacking his record at Bain is "an attack on the free enterprise system." It's not. What if Romney really had been a vulture capitalist at Bain? Would criticizing his record there be at attack on free enterprise? The real issue is that Romney has a solid record at Bain and Obama is trying to distract from a ghastly unemployment situation.