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President Obama, Mitt Romney debate nature of campaign in private equity exchange

John Gress/Getty Images

President Obama speaks during a news conference closing the NATO summit at McCormick Place in Chicago

All day Monday, Republicans played offense and Democrats were on defense after Newark Mayor Cory Booker committed a political faux pas over the weekend.

The Obama surrogate said his candidate’s attack on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital record was as “nauseating” as reports of planned Republican attacks on President Obama’s former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

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The public rebuke by a supposed presidential supporter undercut the message of an ad the Obama campaign ran last week about Bain’s handling of a steel plant in Missouri.

It also overshadowed a follow-up ad released Monday, which highlighted how Bain ran up debt at American Pad & Paper, and set it and an office supply company Ampad bought in Marion, Ind., on a path to bankruptcy and closure.

Against that context, Obama was not only ready but eager to answer when asked about Booker’s comment during a news conference Monday afternoon called to discuss the end of a NATO summit in Chicago.

The president ended up giving an extemporaneous answer that nonetheless had a practiced quality to it.

And it fleshed out a major campaign theme that will gird Obama’s campaign against Romney this year.

Here is the president’s full answer, as transcribed by White House stenographers, followed by Romney’s response:

“Well, first of all, I think Cory Booker is an outstanding mayor. He is doing great work in Newark and obviously helping to turn that city around. And I think it’s important to recognize that this issue is not a “distraction.” This is part of the debate that we’re going to be having in this election campaign about how do we create an economy where everybody from top to bottom, folks on Wall Street and folks on Main Street, have a shot at success and if they’re working hard and they’re acting responsibly, that they’re able to live out the American Dream,” said Obama.

“Now, I think my view of private equity is that it is set up to maximize profits. And that’s a healthy part of the free market. That’s part of the role of a lot of business people. That’s not unique to private equity. And as I think my representatives have said repeatedly, and I will say today, I think there are folks who do good work in that area. And there are times where they identify the capacity for the economy to create new jobs or new industries, but understand that their priority is to maximize profits. And that’s not always going to be good for communities or businesses or workers.

“And the reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Governor Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be President is his business expertise. He is not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts. He is saying, I’m a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business.

“And 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 got 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. Your job as President is to think about how do we set up a equitable tax system so that everybody is paying their fair share that allows us then to invest in science and technology and infrastructure, all of which are going to help us grow.

“And so, if your main argument for how to grow the economy is I knew how to make a lot of money for investors, then you’re missing what this job is about. It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as President. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but 10 years from now and 20 years from now.

“So to repeat, this is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about, is what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed? And that means I’ve got to think about those workers in that video just as much as I’m thinking about folks who have been much more successful.”

Two hours later, the Romney campaign responded with a statement directly from the candidate.

“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,” said Romney.

“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,” he said.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.
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