In mid-September 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain proclaimed—on the day Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy—that “the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
It was an epic political gaffe, one that his Democratic rival, Barack Obama, seized upon during his stretch run to winning the White House.
“Senator McCain, what economy are you talking about?” Obama immediately asked.
Pouring it on, Obama added: “What we need now is leadership that gets us out. I’ll provide it; John McCain won’t, and that’s the choice for the American people in this election.”
Nearly four years later, now-President Obama made a similar gaffe last Friday.
He declared that the private sector, amid a climbing unemployment rate and 23 million people out of work, “is doing fine.”
Obama’s current Republican rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, echoed the Democrat’s critique from 2008.
“Is he really that out of touch?” Romney said Friday during an appearance in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “I think he’s really defining what it means to be out of touch with reality.”
While the Obama campaign is arguing that the president’s comment was not the revelatory slip that Romney and the Republicans argue, they might ask McCain, or Senator John Kerry before him, if they agree.
More than just a misspeaking of words, their 2008 and 2004 campaign gaffes offered a window into the soul of the two presidential candidates. Romney says Obama has now done the same for himself.
Kerry, who voted against the 1991 Persian Gulf War but for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, before criticizing the latter war as he ran for president against Republican George W. Bush, was already fighting the impression that he was a flip-flopper when he spoke at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., in March 2004.
Then, as the newly minted Democratic nominee tried to dismiss any criticism that he might receive for voting against a supplemental war appropriation, Kerry said: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
The Massachusetts senator later explained that he voted for an $87 billion bill that would have provided the war funding by cutting some of Bush’s upper-income tax cuts, before voting against the final measure that was financed without the tax changes.
Nonetheless, the Bush campaign seized upon the comment.
In 2008, McCain was delivering his first speech of the day in Jacksonville, Fla., when he moved to address the economic chaos that was engulfing Wall Street.
“You know there’s been tremendous turmoil in our financial markets and Wall Street and it is—people are frightened by these events,” he proclaimed.
Then, he famously added: “Our economy, I think, still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
Almost forgotten is what came next.
McCain said: “But these are very, very difficult times. And I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. We will reform government.”
McCain aides immediately tried to walk back the “fundamentals” comment, before the candidate himself took a shot a damage control during his next stop in Orlando.
McCain said that when he mentioned “fundamentals,” he meant the strength of American workers and the fundamental contribution they make to the economy.
“Our workers are the most innovative, the hardest working, the best skilled, most productive, most competitive in the world,” McCain said. Trying to shift from defense to offense, the Arizona senator added: “My opponents may disagree, but those fundamentals of America are strong.”
Nonetheless, the Obama campaign was merciless in its response.
It rushed out a television commercial repeatedly showing McCain making his original remark.
“How can John McCain fix our economy if he doesn’t understand it’s broken?” the caption said as images of McCain and Bush flashed on the screen.
During the current campaign, Romney and his staff have made a series of gaffes that Obama and his team have said carry deeper meaning.
Romney’s declaration last summer that “corporations are people,” they said, revealed a bias against the middle class. And senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was blasted after he said that as candidates shift from primary to general election mode, it reshuffles the campaign much like shaking an Etch A Sketch. The Obama campaign said it affirmed Romney lacks a core.
But Romney’s almost-singular criticism of Obama throughout this year’s primary and general election campaigns is that the president is detached from the daily reality of the millions suffering through a lagging recovery.
Ironically, the president was trying to address the pace of that recovery—and blast congressional Republicans from blocking his proposals to accelerate it—when he called a news conference on Friday to cast a spotlight on the issue.
After Obama delivered his opening statement, a reporter asked him what he thought of Republican complaints that he’s blaming the Europeans and their own financial crisis for the failures of his own policies.
“The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone,” the president replied. “The private sector is doing fine.”
He went on to add: “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, and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.
“And so, if Republicans want to be helpful, if they really want to move forward and put people back to work, what they should be thinking about is, how do we help state and local governments and how do we help the construction industry,” he said.
Romney, the Republicans, and their allies pounced. The Republican National Committee, for example, came out with a web video even before the official White House transcript of the news conference was released.
It echoed Obama’s own ad against McCain after his “fundamentals” remark four years earlier.
The buzz prompted the president four hours later to take a rare shouted question at the end of an Oval Office appearance with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
“Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine,” the president of the United States said in a somewhat-jarring statement about his own country. “That’s the reason I had the press conference. That’s why I spent yesterday, the day before yesterday, this past week, this past month, and this past year talking about how we can make the economy stronger. The economy is not doing fine. There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak and too many homes underwater. And that’s precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference.”
On Sunday, David Axelrod, the president’s top political strategist, did talk show interviews to continue the cleanup.
Asked on ABC to assess the lasting damage from the comment, Axelrod said: “I think the American people are smarter than that. They understand the president called the press conference to say that because of the storm clouds that are rolling in from Europe and elsewhere, we need to undergird our economy, and he called the press conference to promote several steps he thought we needed to take to strengthen job creation.”
Later, appearing on CNN, Axelrod was repeatedly asked if he agreed with the president that “the private sector is doing fine.”
After the third question, he replied: “I believe—it’s certainly doing better than the public sector.”
The Romney campaign disputed that.
Similar to the Obama four years earlier, it released a web video harping on the president’s statement.
“We’ve seen layoffs, cutbacks,” says one woman in a stark black-and-white motif.
A man adds: “When it’s all said and done I’m making $200 a month.”
That’s followed by another woman who says, “I’ve been looking for a job for two years haven’t found any.”
The final image is a progressively tighter image of Obama making his comment repeatedly.Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.