President Obama's claim last week that the private sector is "doing fine" gave his Republican foes the same kind of ammunition to use against the president that Obama used four years earlier to paint his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, as out of touch with the economic fears of the nation.
Obama's likely foe this fall, Republican Mitt Romney, "absolutely" intends to use the president's remarks as a centerpiece of a campaign to portray Obama as an "economic lightweight" who lacks the skills and insight needed to address the public's chief concern, Romney's aides said.
"We've been making the case for weeks now that this president is out of touch with the challenges facing the economy," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "This is another example of his hostility towards job creators and lack of understanding on the private sector."
Obama was trying to highlight private job growth during his three years in office last week when he said, "The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government -- oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government."
Obama had been trying to make the point that the private sector has been adding jobs month after month, while the public sector continues to shed them, dragging down overall job growth. But Obama's phrasing appeared only to underscore Republicans' arguments that the president sees government, rather than private industry, as the solution to the nation's economic woes.
Such gaffes are not uncommon, and attention to them is often magnified by the 24-hour news cycle. But Obama's remarks went viral so quickly that Romney's campaign is banking that the line will haunt Obama through the campaign.
The gaffe gives Republicans the opportunity to do to Obama what the president did to his Republican rival, McCain, four years earlier when McCain claimed the "fundamentals of our economy are strong," even as millions of Americans were feeling the financial squeeze of a recession.
Republicans pounced immediately on Obama, with lawmakers rushing to Twitter to deride him while conservatives sought to spin the remark into fundraising gold.
"Has there ever been an American president who is so far from reality?" Romney asked at a campaign stop in Iowa shortly after the president spoke.
Obama's campaign countered that Romney's economic plan, based on tax cuts and reductions in federal spending, would do nothing to put teachers, construction workers and public safety employees back to work, which they argue is crucial to helping the economy rebound.
Obama tried to pull back from his comments just hours after he made them, reassuring voters still anxious about the economy that he understands that, while there's "good momentum" in the private sector, it's "absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine."
Some analysts questioned whether it was enough to undo the damage.
"I think the president would be the first to say that it was a 'd'oh' moment," said one Democratic strategist. "It's amazing how much it mirrors McCain's screw-up. I imagine it'd have just as much impact this time around in an election that is all about jobs. That's a slam-dunk, no-brainer ad for Romney."