President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney set down starkly contrasting visions for economic growth Thursday in back-to-back speeches in Ohio, ensuring voters a clear choice on the defining issue in November.
The rhetorical sparring was at once about one thing and everything. Poll after poll shows the economy is the number-one issue for voters across the country.
“There is one place where I stand in complete agreement with my opponent: This election is about our economic future,’’ Obama said at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. “But more than anything else, this election represents a choice between two fundamentally different visions about how to create strong, sustainable growth.’’
For Obama, seeking to make the election a choice between two economic agendas and not just a referendum on the last four years, the theme was fairness. He trumpeted his commitment to building an economy “where everybody gets a fair shot,’’ saying wealthy Americans should aid the rest through higher taxes.
For Romney, the message was freedom. He promised lower taxes, smaller government, and a “return to the principles that made America, America.’’
Romney gave his remarks at equipment manufacturer Seilkop Industries in Cincinnati only minutes before Obama spoke across the state. The candidates’ addresses were originally scheduled to overlap, but Romney spoke earlier than expected, and Obama waited for him to finish.
The dueling speeches came at a key juncture early in the general election. The most recent jobs report showed a slight uptick in unemployment last month. Obama and Romney have begun airing economy-themed advertisements in battleground states, each taking shots at the other’s record.
And a Washington Post/ABC survey published Wednesday showed voters are unimpressed by both candidates’ plans for the economy.
In choosing Ohio as their forum, the rivals acknowledged the importance of this swing state in the fall election.
Romney presented a case Thursday that echoed one of his campaign rallying cries, “Obama isn’t working.’’ He submitted as evidence 40 straight months of unemployment higher than 8 percent and 23 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed, or so discouraged by the job market that they have stopped seeking work.
“Now, I know that he will have all sorts of excuses, and he’ll have all sorts of ideas he’ll describe about how he’ll make things better,’’ Romney said. “But what he says and what he does are not always the exact same thing. And so if people want to know how his economic policies have worked and how they perform, why, they can talk to their neighbor and ask if things are better.’’
Romney renewed his vow to repeal the 2010 health care law, which he called a “great big overhang’’ that “has frightened businesses small and large and made them less likely to hire people.’’
He also drew attention to Obama’s statement last week that “the private sector is doing fine,’’ the star sound bite of a $3.3 million advertising campaign that Romney debuted earlier in the day. The comment, Romney asserted, proves the president is out of touch with middle-class voters.
Obama previously defended his “doing fine’’ assessment by seeking to place the remark in context: He was contrasting slow-but-steady progress in the private sector with worse conditions in the public sector.
Striking a lighter tone Thursday about his “doing fine’’ comment, Obama poked fun at himself, saying “there will be no shortage of gaffes and controversies that keep both campaigns busy and give the press something to write about. You may have heard recently I made my own unique contribution to’’ politicians’ and journalists’ focus on verbal miscues.
Then the president countered Romney with statistics of his own: 4.3 million jobs added to the private sector over 27 consecutive months of job growth.
Obama was alternately fiery and sober. In the latter moments, as he rebutted Romney’s proposals to repeal the health care law and to lower taxes, the president emphasized that “this is not spin’’ and “this is not my opinion.’’
“I have not seen a single independent analysis that says my opponent’s economic plan would actually reduce the deficit. Not one,’’ Obama said. “Even analysts who may agree with parts of his economic theory don’t believe that his plan would create more jobs in the short term,’’ he added, referring to reports by Mark Hopkins, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics, and Joel Prakken, the chairman of Macroeconomic Advisers.
Romney has pitched tax reform that would cut personal income tax rates by 20 percent across the board and slash the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent. Obama has called for a 28 percent corporate tax rate.
Romney, whose lucrative business career included 15 years as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital, said Thursday that current tax rates on businesses - and the high earners who run them - are stifling job growth.
“I spent my life in private enterprise - 25 years,’’ Romney said. “I know how businesses work; I know what causes businesses to leave, and I know what will bring them back. I want to use that experience to get America working again. For me, it’s all about good jobs for the American people.’’
Using a borrowed anecdote from Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a potential running mate, Romney disputed Obama’s argument that “our tax code has to ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little bit more.’’
“I never heard my parents say, ‘Why won’t those people give us some of what they have?’ ’’ Rubio said, in Romney’s retelling. “Instead, they said, ‘Isn’t it great to live in a country where with hard work, an education, and risk taking - and maybe a little luck - you can achieve that yourself?’ ’’
In a nod to affluent backers of the “Buffett Rule’’ - the failed bill that would have enforced a minimum 30 percent effective tax rate on million-dollar annual earners - Obama said “there are plenty of patriotic, very successful Americans who’d be willing to make this contribution.’’
“I don’t believe that giving someone like me a $250,000 tax cut is more valuable to our future than hiring transformative teachers or providing financial aid to the children of a middle-class family,’’ the president said.