After months of Republican Mitt Romney repeatedly committing acts of self-immolation with witless, careless or just plain politically insensitive remarks, now comes President Barack Obama matching them all with his observation in a press conference that "the private sector is doing fine."
With that one remark seeming to challenge the obvious stalled state of the economy, Mr. Obama laid claim to a share of the Tin Ear Trophy held by Mr. Romney by virtue of saying things that make him sound as if he lives in a different world from middle-class Americans. For Mr. Romney, they included comments about his pleasure in firing people, his wife's ownership of two Cadillacs and his vacation home with a car elevator.
Mr. Romney, after months of being a punching bag over his personal wealth and seeming difficulty in grasping how the other 99 percent lives, seized on Mr. Obama's gaffe to turn the tables on him. He proclaimed the president was "defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people."
White House strategists and Mr. Obama himself quickly recognized his ham-handed mistake. Shortly afterward, he corrected himself, acknowledging that "it's absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine." That was the very reason he had held the press conference, he said, though in it he pointed to 27 months of private-sector growth that added 4.3 million jobs, more than 800,000 in the last year.
In trying to clean up the mess, the president still sought to shine a bright light on the situation, observing that "we've actually seen some good momentum in the private sector." He cited record corporate profits in contending that the private sector "has not been the greatest drag on the economy." That rap, he said, was the sharp decline in public-sector jobs, seen in the layoffs of 450,000 local and state government workers.
As Mr. Obama was pivoting to the public sector, Mr. Romney unwittingly threw the president a momentary life preserver, noting the president was saying that "we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers." Mr. Romney asked: "Did he not get the message from Wisconsin? The American people did. It's time for us to cut back on government and help the American people."
The reference was to the vote in Wisconsin, in which Republican Gov. Scott Walker beat a recall effort against him after limiting state government workers' collective-bargaining rights. To the chagrin of organized labor, Mr. Obama declined to go to the state in support of the recall.
Nevertheless, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which firefighters especially and police played key roles as first responders, there remains considerable public good will toward them. Not surprisingly, the Obama campaign jumped on Mr. Romney, accusing him of opposing these heroes of the national catastrophe.
Not surprisingly either, Mr. Romney fired back, saying it was "absolutely absurd" to make the accusation, noting that firefighters and cops as well as teachers all are hired by local government, not the feds. At the same time, he acknowledged he would oppose "another (federal) stimulus, and to have the federal government send money to try and bail out cities and states. It didn't work the first time," he said in another broadbrush denial of any public benefit from the anti-recession stimulus. "It certainly won't work the second time."
This is an argument that Mr. Obama should be expected to join willingly. It frames the debate over the role of government in terms of public safety and security, which would offer him favorable ground. Still, his flub in saying that "the private sector is doing fine" is likely to remain a constant Republican taunt that know-it-all Obama is not quite infallible after all.
So far, at least, the president's slip stands out practically alone in comparison with the litany of Mr. Romney verbal miscues and self-inflicted wounds. But in this era when any self-inflicted damage is endlessly repeated on the Internet, it will be enough to keep the anti-Obama camp firing at him.Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.