-- Updated at 4:20 pm ET. See end of post --
President Obama opened himself up to withering Republican attacks Friday via an off-hand statement he made in a brief White House news conference.
Obama seemed to suggest that matters were going swimmingly for the private-sector part of the economy and that it was the reduction of government jobs that was the real problem.
Asked to respond to Republican charges that he was blaming Europe's economic policies for the alleged failure of his own domestic economic policies, Obama said:
"As I've said, we created 4.3 million jobs over the last two (years), 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine."
Screech!!! As soon as the president uttered those words, it was obvious he and his campaign would be hearing this line repeated back at them for a while, and not in a good way.
Anyway, Obama continued, apparently oblivious to the troubles he had created for himself, adding context to his remarks.
"Where we're seeing weakness in our economy have (sic) to do with the state and local government, often times 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."
The way many voters are feeling about public employees these days, that's not necessarily an argument likely to get a lot of sympathy. In any event, it was completely overshadowed by his "the private sector is doing fine" comment.
Obama was right that the private sector has added jobs throughout the recovery and that it has been the continual shedding of jobs by state and local governments that has helped to restrain to keep job growth.
Even so, progress in private sector jobs has cooled significantly in the last two months, with 87,000 non-government jobs created in April and 82,000 created in May. Many people wouldn't describe those numbers as "fine."
Republicans were quick to pounce.
At a Capitol Hill availability with journalists, the first words out of House Speaker John Boehner's mouth were:
"Mr. President, I used to run a small business. And, Mr. President, take it from me, the private sector is not doing well."
He was followed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor whose first words were:
"As the speaker said, we just listened to the president say the private sector is doing fine. I would say Mr. President, are you kidding? Did you see the jobs numbers last week? The private sector is not doing fine."
Mitt Romney, on the campaign trail in Iowa, said of the man he seeks to replace:
"He said the private sector is doing fine. Is he really that out of touch?"
Mitch McConnell, like other Republicans, emailed journalists with the subject line "The private sector is doing fine?"
And, of course, Twitter was alive with Republicans jumping all over Obama as well which you can see for yourself at the #doingfine hashtag.
It may have all been payback for the way Democrats, including Obama, throttled Sen. John McCain in 2008 when, as the Republican presidential nominee he said, in the teeth of the Great Recession, "...The fundamentals of our economy are strong."
Perhaps John Dickerson, who writes for Slate and does political analysis for CBS News, made one of the more relevant points in a tweet that seemed to suggest that Obama has some high-profile company when it comes to inducing winces in supporters and feeding frenzies among opponents.
" 'private sector is doing fine' = 'not concerned about the very poor.' Discuss."
-- Update —
In an attempt to unring the bell he struck earlier with his remark about the private sector being "fine", Obama took the opportunity of a photo op with Philippine President Benigno Aquino to tell journalists that he is not unmoored from reality and indeed understands that the economy as whole isn't "fine."
Here's much of the president's response to a reporter's question:
REPORTER: "Mr. President, Mitt Romney says you're out of touch for saying the private sector is doing fine. What's your response?"
PRESIDENT OBAMA: "Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine. That's the reason I had the press conference. That's why I spent yesterday, the day before yesterday, this past week, this past month, and this past year talking about how we can make the economy stronger.
"The economy is not doing fine. There are too many people out of work. The housing market is still weak and too many homes underwater. And that's precisely why I asked Congress to start taking some steps that can make a difference.
"Now, I think if you look at what I said this morning and what I've been saying consistently over the last year, we've actually seen some good momentum in the private sector. We've seen 4.3 million jobs created — 800,000 this year alone — record corporate profits. And so that has not been the biggest drag on the economy.
"The folks who are hurting, where we have problems and where we can do even better, is small businesses that are having a tough time getting financing; we've seen teachers and police officers and firefighters who've been laid off — all of which, by the way, when they get laid off spend less money buying goods and going to restaurants and contributing to additional economic growth. The construction industry is still very weak, and that's one of the areas where we've still seen job losses instead of job gains.
"So if we take the steps that I laid out to make sure that we're not seeing teacher layoffs and we're not seeing police officer layoffs, and we're providing small businesses with additional financing and tax breaks for when they hire or if they're giving raises to their employees; if we refinance housing — or allow homeowners to refinance so they've got an extra $3,000 in their pocket so that they can spend money and contribute to further economic growth; if we're making sure that we're rebuilding, work that has to be done anyway, deferred maintenance on roads and bridges that could put construction workers back to work — all those things will strengthen the economy, and independent economists estimate it would create an additional million jobs..."
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