President Barack Obama sought to undermine Mitt Romney's key rationale for his presidential candidacy, sharply attacking his Republican challenger's background as a venture capitalist and arguing that profit-making alone is not a qualification for the White House.
"His main calling card for why he thinks he should be president," Obama declared Monday, "is his business experience."
It was Obama's most expansive argument yet against Romney, and the president delivered it from a world stage in his home town.
On the sidelines of an international summit in Chicago, the Democratic incumbent attempted to dismantle his Republican rival's business pedigree while declaring it an insufficient rationale to lead the nation. In so doing, Obama left no doubt that Romney's business background as founder of Bain Capital, perceived by many as a political strength during a weak economy, would be a recurrent target of his campaign.
Romney responded swiftly, saying Obama was attacking the free-enterprise system. He made it clear that the issue would remain a point of contention for the remainder of the race.
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Obama made the comments in response to a question about Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker's weekend criticism of the Obama campaign's attack on Romney's private equity background. Booker, an Obama supporter, called exchanges by the campaigns over Bain "nauseating" and a distraction from issues that interest voters.
"This is not a distraction," Obama said pointedly at a news conference filled with international media that marked the end of a NATO gathering. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."
Obama argued that the priority of private equity enterprises such as Bain's is "to maximize profits."
"And that's not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers," he said.
Obama's comments came as his campaign has been doubling down on Romney's tenure at Bain, a private equity firm he helped found in 1984. In ads and in web videos, the campaign has drawn attention to companies that Bain took over only to close them or let them fail, costing jobs and hurting communities. Obama also has dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to battleground states — and specifically economically struggling areas filled with white blue-collar voters — to assail Romney on the matter.
The president on Monday was careful not to criticize private equity or profit making in general. But by standing by the Bain criticism, Obama also risked feeding a story line that he is anti-business and eager to restrain and tax the private sector in pursuit of his vision of fairness.
The line of attack illustrates Obama's complicated relationship with the business community. He has used populist language to attack Wall Street executive and bankers as "fat cats," and called for an end to tax subsidies of oil and gas companies, but he also expanded the government's rescue of the auto industry and has promoted tax breaks for small businesses.
While some of his Wall Street support has waned, he still draws a significant amount of campaign contributions from major investors, retaining a good relationship with, among others, billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
At the news conference, Obama acknowledged that businesses that seek to turn a profit by investing in struggling companies often succeed in creating new jobs and new industries — an argument Romney himself has made in pointing to his accomplishments at Bain.
"When you're president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm," he added, "then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot."
Romney's campaign has welcomed the election-year debate on jobs, arguing that the former Massachusetts governor generated tens of thousands of jobs in the public and private sector.
"President Obama confirmed today that he will continue his attacks on the free enterprise system, which Mayor Booker and other leading Democrats have spoken out against," Romney said in response. "What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty. President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies. My campaign is offering a positive agenda to help America get back to work."
The back and forth illustrates how both sides recognize that the economy is an Obama vulnerability.
While the economy has begun to recover under his presidency, the turnabout has been slow and marked by high unemployment that remains above 8 percent. For Obama, his challenge is persuading voters to stick with him as he tries to help the economy rebound while withstanding criticism from Romney that the president's policies have hindered the recovery.
"The idea that people are walking around with less of a paycheck or higher gas prices because of something Bain Capital did 20 years ago is absurd," said Romney senior aide Stuart Stevens
But in the days since Obama put Bain back in focus, Romney has struggled to follow a consistent playbook for what's become a sustained attack on multiple fronts. The campaign at times dismisses the criticism as a distraction, other times as an attack on free markets, and still others as an attempt to divide the nation.
Asked about Bain's closure of a Kansas City steel plant that the company acquired in 1993 when Romney was Bain's CEO, Romney last week told a conservative radio host that it wasn't his problem: "Their problem, of course, is that the steel factory closed down two years after I left Bain Capital. I was no longer there. So that's hardly something which is on my watch," he said.