A matter of difference

Considering how political reporters have to listen to every stump speech a presidential candidate gives, you’d think some of them would be better at remembering them than the story of Mitt Romney’s speech in Hopkins last night reveals.

The Associated Press reports

Creating a potential headache for his campaign, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said big businesses in the U.S. were “doing fine” in part because they get advantages from offshore tax havens.

His comments echoed similar assertions about the state of big business by President Barack Obama which Romney has criticized. They’re also a reminder that the GOP candidate has kept some of his personal fortune in low tax foreign accounts.

The problem with the story is Romney’s comments are not that similar to the ones for which Republicans criticized Obama.

Here’s Obama’s comments:

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 private sector is doing fine. 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.

Earlier in the press briefing (full transcript here), the president alluded to the private sector saying, “.. overall, the private sector has been doing a good job creating jobs. We’ve seen record profits in the corporate sector. ”

That’s clearly an allusion to big business but that isn’t the same part of his news conference where he said “the private sector is doing fine.” And using the word “overall” before the phrase “private sector” does not distinguish between its components. Romney, on the other hand, obviously was drawing a distinction between large business and small business.

Commentator Rachel Maddow gives Romney a pass… sort of.

In context, any fair examination shows that Romney was trying to make a point about small businesses — larger corporations are “doing fine,” but more modest-sized enterprises are not. Obviously, everyone knows what he meant and the argument he intended to present. This need not be controversial.

But therein lies the rub: everyone also knows what Obama meant and the argument the president intended to present, but that didn’t stop Romney from turning the out-of-context phrase into a major campaign offensive — and then echoing the exact same sentiment.

But, in fact, the president explained his assessment of the economy completely in the June briefing. He said the private sector was creating jobs, the exception being the construction industry. And then he discussed the number of jobs lost in the government sector. In fact, he said “where we’re seeing weakness in the economy is state and local governments.”

And as long as we’re invited to talk context, let’s do that. The only similarity between the two mens’ comments were the words “fine” and “business.” Where they obviously have some similarity is why the big businesses are doing fine, but that point wasn’t what made the headlines.

The president’s solution to the assessment was pretty clear in the June briefing…

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. Because the recipes that they’re promoting are basically the kinds of policies that would add weakness to the economy, would result in further layoffs, would not provide relief in the housing market, and would result, I think most economists estimate, in lower growth and fewer jobs, not more.

And, to be clear, the Obama jobs plans includes a tax break for small business. The plan also includes public works spending, aid to state and local governments to prevent layoffs of teachers and money to stop the foreclosure of homes.

There’s nothing about that that in any way is echoed by Gov. Romney’s jobs plan, which includes — his campaign website says — reduced taxes, reduced spending, reduced regulation, and reduced government programs.

Stories that might suggest that Romney and Obama have some common ground on the issue (thinly veiled “gotcha” stories), or that Romney was somehow hypocritical on the subject of jobs do voters no favors when they come at the expense of a contextual comparison between the two men.

The differences couldn’t be more obvious.