The Republicans are fighting back hard against charges that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney used predatory practices when he ran Bain Capital, a private-equity firm. In the process, Bain has become the first big flashpoint of the 2012 campaign, drawing both sides into a pitched battle.
That's because the Bain issue is a microcosm of the larger debate over the economy and the role of capitalism and government in the United States.
Romney argues that his stint running Bain provided him with crucial insights into how the economy works, and this would give him the knowhow to improve the economy and create jobs if he became president. Obama argues that Romney made a lot of money for himself and his investors but what's needed are policies that help the middle class and the poor, not wealthy businessmen.
Romney says he learned that the federal government can only do so much to help, and private enterprise should be given as much freedom as possible. Obama says the federal government is a crucial player and must regulate abuses and take action to improve the economy.
President Obama raised the stakes Monday when, in a dramatic foray into pure election-year politics, he said his campaign's harsh criticism of Romney for his record at Bain is an appropriate line of attack. "This is what this campaign is going to be about...a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed."
"My view of private equity is that it is set up to maximize profits, and that's a healthy part of the free market," Obama told an audience in Chicago. But he added: "That's not always going to be good for businesses or communities or workers." Obama said that Romney's "main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience....When you're president, as opposed to the head of a private-equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot. Your job is to think about those workers who get laid off, and how are we paying for their retraining. Your job is to think about how those communities can start creating new clusters so that they can attract new businesses."
These comments came after one of Obama's prime surrogates, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, said the Obama campaign's attacks on Bain were "nauseating." He compared the criticism to attempts to link Obama to his controversial former pastor in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Booker subsequently tried to soften his critique, saying he still strongly backs Obama's re-election and supports scrutiny of Romney's business experience.
The Romney campaign quickly began using Booker's comments to discredit the Bain-bashing.
Romney's campaign produced an ad praising Booker's candor and also referring to former Rep. Democratic Harold Ford, Jr., who agreed with Booker's comments. Earlier, Steven Rattner, a businessman and former Obama adviser, said the Obama campaign's relentless attacks on Romney's career at Bain were "unfair."
The Republican National Committee circulated an online petition entitled, "I Stand Wth Cory." And Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Obama's critique shows "a failure to understand the role" that private-equity firms play in reviving weak companies and increasing economic growth.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" at usnews.com and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News digital weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.