After the jobs numbers and the Wisconsin recall, we get a royal verbal screw-up from POTUS and Romney drives the knife further in:
I'm with Weigel on this one. This is a big black eye for the president – not because what he said is in context that outrageous. It's a black eye purely because what he said is outrageous out of context and not in a self-evidently false way. So it's a pure political gift to his opponents – and the GOP will clip the quote to make it as damning as they can. They will try to identify a president whose administration inherited and was consumed by the worst recession since the 1930s as a man who has no idea there is a recession at all. And with low-information swing voters, it will be horrible.
Of course, I do not believe for a second that Romney actually believes that Obama believes the private sector is doing fine. He knows, as we do, that what Obama was trying ineptly to say is that compared with the public sector, the private sector is doing fine, which is not the same as great, right now. But watch Mitt up there, all shocked and stunned. He's just incredulous that Barack Obama genuinely believes that the private sector is doing fine. Amazed. Staggered. I mean: gee willikers, can you believe it?
Now watch Obama's expression as he swiftly tries to correct himself:
Yes, that's a smile. Of amused desperation. He knows the damage. He knows that the result is that some will successfully persuade others that he truly believes the exact opposite of what he actually believes. He knows that the elaboration above will get one millionth of the views of the original fuck-up.
All I hope is that it doesn't get into his head. Or our collective head.
There are some real choices in this election: how to work off a recession created by a financial crisis, a housing bubble, and a debt overhang? Whether to tackle the debt with spending cuts alone or whether to include tax increases in the mix? War with Iran or not? More stimulus or more austerity? And none of them can usefully be engaged in by any reference as to whether the president actually believes that the private sector is booming. He doesn't. It's obvious he doesn't. It came out wrong. If we cannot make the distinction between those kinds of arguments – real ones or phony ones – then we will get the government we deserve.
As for Obama, he's been hazed before; he will be hazed again. This election campaign is going to turn him into a pinata of projection and distortion and blame. It will be like the battle with Clinton only far, far more brutal. His only option is to do what he did then: relentlessly counter distortions with truth. He needs to tell the story of the last three years clearly and honestly, and to make the case for what he will do in the future, without being distracted by the 24 hour nonstop chatter that now convulses the attentive body politic. He has a strong case on the content of his record and on what he plans to do going forward and how it all fits together. He has to make it. Again and again. With ever more clarity and concision.
To be more precise, he must make it plainer that, in this country's politics, he is still the change agent. If he weren't, why would they have done so much to stop him? And why are they so desperate to prevent a second term? What Obama needs to do is to connect the opposition he now faces to the campaign he ran in 2008. He did what he said he'd do. But he needs another term to get it to stick. They know that. He knows that. But do his 2008 supporters see it yet?
It's going to be hard. And it's not always going to be fair. But the stakes now are as large as they were in 2008. And the wind, rather than being at his back like last time, is blowing with increasingly irrational ferocity in his face. I feel no pity for him. When you take up the mantle he has, you accept that you will alternately be blessed and cursed by fate as well as your own judgments. And he's had plenty of his own luck in getting to the White House. He's going to have to earn every inch of it to stay there.
This is where we see, of course, if he really has got it in him – and if those of us who saw him as a change agent have the stamina in us as well. Few have achieved so much in the presidency so tenuously. But that was always the risk of the long game.
In that long game, as they say on cable news, the critical period starts now.