Robert J. Vickers
Deep into a first term that even staunch supporters might privately describe as weak, President Barack Obama has suddenly contorted himself in the unlikely position of political bully.
The president, who early in his tenure meekly let hat-in-hand financiers off the hook after they triggered a lengthy global recession, is now seen by many as browbeating Newark Mayor Cory Booker for rebuking his re-election campaign’s attacks.
Booker, an Obama surrogate and heretofore a rising star in the Democratic Party, has cut a forlorn figure since calling the campaign to task Sunday for attacking Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
The campaign contends Romney’s sole concern as CEO of Bain Capital was creating profits, not jobs. And it’s delivering that message specifically to blue-collar factory markets in battleground states, including Pennsylvania.
Within hours of his initial criticism, the mayor renowned for rushing into a burning building to save a neighbor, posted an online message that walked back his criticism. Booker encouraged critiques of Romney’s time at Bain.
But Booker, who had lamented all negative campaigning as “nauseating,” was not the lone Democrat to have criticized the attacks.
Obama’s former auto bailout czar Steven Rattner called the campaign attacks “unfair.”
Even former Gov. Ed Rendell, the one-time Democratic National Committee chairman, said he found the campaign attacks “disappointing.”
Because Rattner is a source of vital campaign funds, and Rendell is a connected former party boss, neither will face the reprimand Booker appears to have already sustained.
But the Obama campaign has sent a clear message to surrogates with an independent tongue: Criticize anything the campaign does and a political castration awaits.
Booker and also Rendell, as a current and former mayor of large but challenged cities, both know the challenges of job creation at a level neither Obama nor Romney have never experienced.
That didn’t stop the Republican National Committee from astutely seizing upon the Obama campaign’s extended siege on Bain, and the way Obama’s handlers apparently censured Booker.
On Tuesday, the RNC released a compilation video of Booker, Rendell and Rattner’s comments. The party also accused an Obama spokesman of lying about coercing Booker.
The Newark mayor has since objected to “being used by the GOP,” but the whirlwind generated by his pointedly candid Sunday comments has inexplicably continued.
Rendell delivered a milder walkback Tuesday night but continued to reiterate his concern with the tone of Obama’s Bain attacks.
“I’m disappointed in virtually every political ad right now cause they’re all negative, they all slam, no one talks about the good things we’ve done in government, and it’s one of the reasons there’s so much voter dissatisfaction, and so many voters that don’t have confidence in the government,” he said on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews.”
“I think [Obama’s] done a good job,” Rendell added. “I’d like to see him emphasize the good things he’s done for the country under difficult circumstances.”
He was joined Wednesday by Rattner, who published a mixed bag Op-Ed in The New York Times describing the Obama campaign’s Bain ads as “narrowly accurate,” but also characterizing Romney’s attempt to link his Bain work to job creation as “foolishly reweaving history.”
The image of bully Obama began to form last week. The president’s re-election campaign relentlessly shifted from its initial positive message based on Obama’s record to a negative one demonizing Romney’s self-professed business acumen.
But instead of calling into question Romney’s “calling card” campaign argument — that his Bain experience uniquely qualifies him to tackle the nation’s economic woes — Obama’s wonton attacks may be painting Romney as a sympathetic figure.
It’s far too early in the campaign for any of this to matter to voters, particularly in the battleground states Obama’s re-election effort has targeted for the Bain critique.
But the relentless verve with which the campaign has approached the attack appears to have soured some prominent Democrats.
This early campaign moment is a far cry from what Romney would have expected just a few months ago when other GOP presidential hopefuls were savaging the former Massachusetts governor daily.
Principle among the intra-party attacks was Romney being a proud illegitimate parent of the president’s highly controversial health care plan.
But Republican nomination rivals saved some of their most vicious vitriol for Romney’s work at Bain, berating him as a greedy, job-destroying opportunist. A series of their edited soundbites was released Tuesday by pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA.
In the ad, Texas Gov. Rick Perry calls Bain and corporations like it “vulture capitalists” that “pick the carcass clean.”
Also featured in the ad, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said examinations of Romney’s Bain job-creating credentials were “fair (and) not negative campaigning.”
Since April, when Romney essentially sealed the party nomination, most of his GOP critics have been quietly reprimanded — unlike Booker — or simply gone silent. During the GOP nomination race, it was Romney who was answering allegations of campaign bullying.
Now, Romney has been content to be perceived as a well-meaning, successful businessman set upon by a ruthless political sophomore desperate to stay in the White House.
On Wednesday, Romney suddenly sought to shift the debate to primary education and rolled out proposals straight from the conservative playbook — school choice for low-income students and greater local control.
Romney certainly still has an appetite for political attacks, targeting the president for being beholden to teacher unions.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Chicago-based campaign cabal of tone-deaf strategists look determined to stick to a Bain tactic that’s either been poorly executed, or ill-conceived.
For struggling voters desperate for real leadership, these petty political behaviors suggest little more than a cruel campaign summer.