Does Obama Have A Messaging Problem?

Republicans have pounced on a comment by Newark, New Jersey mayor and Obama re-election surrogate Cory Booker. He called the Obama campaign's attacks on Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital "nauseating." Host Michel Martin discusses the art of messaging with former presidential speechwriter Mary Kate Cary, and journalism professor Cynthia Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, voters are heading to the polls in Egypt to choose a new president. We wanted to know more about who is running and how voters are reacting to what observers are calling the first truly competitive elections in the country's history. We'll talk with a correspondent who's covering this in just a few minutes.

But first we turn to presidential politics in this country. The Obama campaign has taken to the airwaves to attack Mitt Romney's time leading the asset management firm Bain Capital, but the strategy has been hit by friendly fire. This comes in a week that showed the Obama-Romney match-up as the close race it was long expected to be.

We wanted to talk more about that, so we've called two of our regular political commentators. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush. She's now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. Also with us, Cynthia Tucker. She is a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a Pulitzer Prize winner for her work at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Ladies, it's great to have you both back with us.

MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Good to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: So let's start off with that exciting contretemps involving Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The Obama campaign has been attacking Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital, saying the company slashed benefits and jobs at a steel mill that (technical difficulties) I do think it's worth mentioning that this is a line of attack that was originated by Republicans during the primary.

CARY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: I think that's worth noting. But this weekend, when Newark, New Jersey mayor and Obama surrogate, Cory Booker, went on "Meet the Press," he criticized the attack, saying it's nauseating to the American people. Enough is enough. And it took almost no time for the Romney campaign to use Booker's words to their advantage. Here's a clip in a new online ad. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Have you had enough of President Obama's attacks on free enterprise? His own key supporters have. Democrat Mayor Cory Booker of New Jersey...

MAYOR CORY BOOKER: I have to just say from a very personal level I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity.

MARTIN: OK. Worth noting, Booker criticized both campaigns on "Meet the Press" and he criticized attempts to revive President Obama's association with former pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But Mary Kate, I have to ask you, what do you think? I mean, what struck you about this? I'm particularly curious about your time in the Bush White House, like, what would you have done if one of your surrogates went on and kind of upended...

CARY: Yeah, well...

MARTIN: ...one of your campaign themes?

CARY: Back in the day, back in ancient history, the 1988 campaign, Bush versus Dukakis, I was the senior writer and most of - not speechwriter but regular writer - and most of my stuff went out to the surrogates. So I worked very closely with the surrogate office there and I wrote something every day that was the campaign's position on whatever the news of the day was, so that the surrogates knew exactly where the campaign stood.

We certainly didn't expect them to agree with everything but they were expected to know what our position was and if they chose to disagree, that was fine. If this had happened now - then - I don't think there would have been this massive overreaction by the campaign to take this guy to the woodshed, walk everything back and have him cut a new video explaining his position.

It turned it into - a one day story into a four day story. Here it is Wednesday, and we're still talking about it. The video's on the Internet. It was really...

MARTIN: You think they should've said he's entitled to his opinion.

CARY: Yeah. They should've said...

MARTIN: Guess what - these are his constituents.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: So of course he's going to defend it. But...

CARY: They should've said he was over his skiis, so to speak, and let it go, because I just think that was a massive mishandling by the Obama campaign. They should've said agree to disagree.

MARTIN: Cynthia Tucker, what do you say?

TUCKER: Well, I think there is a good reason that Mary Kate didn't have any experience with this in the Bush White House. There's a huge - there's a big difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of behavior and this is that big difference. You know, Will Rogers said a long time ago, I belong to no organized political party, I'm a Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Republicans simply don't do that.

CARY: That's right.

TUCKER: They don't get off message that way.

CARY: We obey.

TUCKER: But the line about Republicans is we don't fall in love, we fall in line. And you see that Republicans are doing that behind Mitt Romney. So partly what you're seeing here is the difference - a difference in the DNA in Democratic operatives and Republican operatives. But let me also make a comment about overreaction.

Mary Kate may be right that the Obama administration overreacted, but I think the Republicans have also overreacted. I think they went one or two steps so far because they quickly got ads together using not only Cory Booker but there were a couple of other Democrats who challenged Obama on his attacks on Bain Capital.

One of those was Steve Rattner, a big-time Democrat who's also run a private equity company and he has a piece in the New York Times hammering Mitt Romney for his stewardship of Bain Capital in terms of job creation. He says that Mitt Romney has vastly exaggerated the number of jobs that he created while he was at Bain Capital and that that's fair game. So I don't think that this has necessarily worked to the Republicans' advantage either.

MARTIN: But do you think that the damage has attached to the Obama strategy to use this? I mean, the president has said that he still thinks that this is a legitimate argument, that Mitt Romney's using his time at Bain Capital as his credential, that it is fair to examine his record. Do you think that that argument still holds force, that it's still a good one?

TUCKER: I absolutely do. Not only did the president say it was legitimate, Michel, he came out and said this will be at the center of the campaign. Because this is the credential that Mitt Romney has chosen to make the centerpiece: I am qualified to be commander-in-chief because I know how to right the economy because I created jobs when I was at Bain Capital.

So Obama said that will be at the center of the campaign and I suspect it will. Let me also say that this notion that Obama is trying to use of turning what Mitt Romney thought would be a strength, his experience at Bain Capital, into a weakness, is right out of the Republican playbook. If you remember 2004, John Kerry put forth his military credentials as the centerpiece of his campaign and Karl Rove and company quickly turned that into a weakness for him.

Obama is trying to do exactly the same thing with these attacks on Bain Capital.

MARTIN: I'm talking politics with two of our regular political commentators. Cynthia Tucker is a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H. W. Bush, now a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report.

So Mary Kate, I know that the polls are interesting to you too. To Cynthia's point that this is a core issue, it's always been expected to be...

CARY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...kind of a key issue. Is it? Are the polls showing that it is the economy, who is best positioned to handle the economy - what are the polls saying?

CARY: Yeah, I agree that this is not a distraction, this argument about Bain Capital. It goes to the heart of the way people feel about capitalism and free markets. There were two polls that came out in the last 24 hours. ABC/Washington Post poll, the key number in that one is that 30 percent of those polled think they are worse off since they were in 2008, which is very similar to my old boss, President Bush 41's numbers right before he was going into the election, and that is not a good sign for Obama.

And then the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, two-thirds of those polled think we're on the wrong track, and more than half disapprove of the president's handling of the economy. Those numbers go even higher than the half, disapproval numbers among independents, women and working class voters. Those are very bad numbers for the Obama White House and I think they should be hitting the panic button.

The most interesting thing aside from the economy is the president had a 19 point lead among women in April under the ABC/Post poll. That's down to a seven point lead. So Romney's definitely making some great headway amongst women and I think this argument on the Catholic Church has a lot to do with it.

MARTIN: Hmm. Really? And Cynthia, how do you read that data?

TUCKER: Well, I don't - first of all, I think to Mary Kate's point about the president's fairly - his fairly weak poll numbers on the economy, that's no great surprise. I don't think the Obama administration is hitting the panic button because they knew that they would be fighting a battle in a very tough economic climate and voters always vote on pocketbook issues. And last year they understood that the unemployment numbers weren't going to be nearly as good as they had hoped. So this is going to be a very tight election, very closely fought.

Having said that, let me say that, first of all, different polls show different numbers on the gender gap. Some polls show it having closed significantly for Romney. Some polls show that the president still has a 12 to 13 point advantage among women over Romney. So that's going to be a key group that both men will continue to battle over and for.

But the other thing that I think is significant here is, you know, we love to talk about national polls, the head-to-head matchup in national surveys, but those really aren't the poll numbers that matter most. This election is going to be won or lost for Obama in eight or nine pivotal swing states and it is those poll numbers that are going to be the most interesting, and at the moment the best news for Romney is that one poll shows him up in Florida.

However, there are other polls that show that the economy is improving in states like Ohio, and in Pennsylvania, Obama is up. So those - it's those state-by-state polls, critical - in critical battleground areas that I think are more important to watch.

MARTIN: Some of those critical battleground areas also have Republican governors now who are obviously very supportive of Mitt Romney, like Virginia, for example, which Obama won. Ohio, which Obama won. And so those are clearly - OK. Those are clearly going to be places to watch.

Mary Kate, we only have a minute left. What are the next places that you think we should be turning our attention to? Cynthia says it's those battleground states. What do you say? What are the places - the next places to look to?

CARY: I would agree with that. I think battleground states - it's a dwindling handful of people in a smaller and smaller number of states that are going to be key here. The most interesting thing this week was the Catholic lawsuit against the president. Forty-three Catholic institutions filed federal lawsuits against the president, and many of those were in swing states and major media markets with a key core constituency of white working-class Catholics, and I think that could make quite a difference in terms of turnout.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a former speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush. She's a columnist and blogger for U.S. News and World Report. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Cynthia Tucker is a professor of journalism at the University of Georgia. She was with us from member station WCLK in Atlanta.

Ladies, thank you both.

CARY: Thank you.

TUCKER: Thank you.

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