WASHINGTON - President Obama’s reelection campaign opened a new front against Mitt Romney on his home turf Wednesday, calling Romney’s tenure as Massachusetts governor a time of grand gestures and empty economic promises that should be a warning sign for the nation.
To drive home the point, Obama’s campaign is sending chief strategist David Axelrod to the Massachusetts State House Thursday morning to stage a press conference just steps from the office Romney once occupied.
“Mitt Romney applied the economic philosophy he learned in the private sector to disastrous results as governor of Massachusetts,’’ Axelrod wrote in a five-page memo released Wednesday. “Massachusetts couldn’t afford Romney Economics, and neither can the American economy.’’
The strategy marks a shift for Obama, who has spent several weeks aggressively criticizing Romney’s experience running the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital. It echoes the campaigns of previous presidential candidates who lambasted foes on their home court, most notably Vice President George H.W. Bush’s use of a chartered boat to link the fetid Boston Harbor to his rival, Governor Michael Dukakis.
Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, responded Wednesday by calling the effort desperate and an attempt to divert attention from the national economy.
“If President Obama had even half the job creation record of Mitt Romney, then he would be running on it,’’ she said.
An outline of Obama’s new campaign breaks down Romney’s tenure as governor point by point, highlighting promises he made while running for office, complete with links to videos of Romney in 2002 gubernatorial debates.
It points to rises in a host of fees, while pointing out that Romney pledged not to raise taxes. The central thrust, however, seeks to undercut Romney’s argument that he is a job creator who would bring the country out of a dour economy.
Romney made a bold promise during his 2002 campaign, saying, “My program for creating jobs is second to none in the entire history of this state.’’
But his four-year term provided a far more muddy picture that complicates his ability to sell himself as a job creator and turnaround artist, according to some independent analysts.
By the time Romney left the State House, Massachusetts had generated 24,400 net new jobs, according to an analysis by Moody’s Economy.com, an independent research group. The state had only an 0.8 percent increase in employment, giving it the fourth-weakest rate of job growth among all states over that time.
“If you want to say you’re about job creation, your record - at least in our state - would suggest that’s just not true,’’ said Andrew Sum, a professor at Northeastern University who has studied Romney’s economic record. “That time period was a very weak time period for the state.
“I’m not blaming everything on him, but he didn’t turn anything around,’’ he added.
Sum did a study that showed that 14 percent of the state’s manufacturing jobs were lost during Romney’s four years, along with declines in payroll and labor force. In all indicators, Massachusetts was below the national average and was among the lowest-performing states in the country.
Sum also said Romney’s frequent argument that unemployment dropped during his tenure is a false indicator. The unemployment rate was dropping nationwide, and much of the improvement in Massachusetts was due not to additional jobs but because people stopped looking for work or moved out of the state, he said.
Some in the business community also complained that Romney never fulfilled a promise to be the state’s chief cheerleader, instead using the Bay State as a punch line as he began laying the groundwork for his 2008 presidential campaign.
“He campaigned in 2002 that he was going to be the ambassador for Massachusetts, that as a CEO at the highest levels of the private sector he could open doors and bring business to Massachusetts,’’ said Michael Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “It’s virtually universally recognized that he did very little of that. . . . He was out badmouthing Massachusetts instead of being the ambassador, by the end of his term.’’
Romney repeatedly was forced to defend his record in Massachusetts during this election season’s primaries. Texas Governor Rick Perry frequently criticized him over his jobs record in the Bay State, while former House speaker Newt Gingrich pilloried Romney’s record at Bain Capital. Both have since endorsed Romney.
In a second response to Obama’s attack, Romney’s camp said in a statement Wednesday: “We’re happy to compare the 4.7 percent unemployment rate Mitt Romney was able to accomplish any day against President Obama’s failure to meet his own goal of 6 percent right now.’’
Like Obama would in 2009, Romney in 2003 inherited a sluggish economy. Between February 2001 and December 2003, the state lost 205,100 jobs, or about 6 percent of its workforce. The climate later improved, and some of Romney’s policies were credited with helping the business climate.
He persuaded the Democratic-dominated Legislature to approve a law to fast-track the permitting process, helping businesses expand.
“The truth is, if you look at the record, it’s a heck of a lot more than I expected I’d get done in four years,’’ Romney told the Globe in 2007.
As part of their effort to put Romney’s record under a microscope, Obama advisers say, several former Massachusetts officials are prepared to criticize the former governor. The advisers have declined to say who, aside from Axelrod, will attend Thursday’s State House event, but attendees could include former mayors and lawmakers who worked with Romney.
Governor Deval Patrick, who is expected to play a prominent role in the Obama campaign in the coming months, was not planning to attend the event but was slated to appear on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe’’ and several other national television programs.
In some ways, Obama campaign operatives must walk a tightrope in dealing with Romney’s record in Massachusetts. For more than a year, they have heaped praise on him for passing a revolutionary health care plan.
Romney had the skills to craft, negotiate, and work with Democrats on his signature accomplishment, their argument went, as they sought to remind Republican primary voters that Romney created the precursor for Obama’s national health care law. But now they are attempting to shift that ample praise for health care into pointed criticism for nearly everything else.
The activity over the next few weeks is likely to intensify as both sides attempt to define Romney before a wider electorate that may not have been paying attention to the Republican nominating contests.
“Not a lot of people focus time on the characteristics of a new candidate like myself, and people will get to know me better,’’ Romney said in an interview that aired Wednesday on Fox News. “My guess is they’re going to get to know more about me than they’d like to by the time we’re finished.’’
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.