In the Arena

Obama Stumbles? Why the President’s Right to Talk About Bain

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Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event in Denver on May 23, 2012.

The meme of the day in journo-world is that President Obama has stumbled¬†at the outset of the general election campaign. The evidence for this? Well, uh, there isn’t very much, really–except that a few Democrats have criticized his campaign’s attacks on Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital and that Obama’s fundraising is merely humongous, instead of obscenely humongous. The two phenomena are linked, of course: Obama isn’t getting the usual haul from Wall Street because he has outrageously–outrageously!–tried to regulate the bankers who did so much to crash the economy in 2008. The handful of Democrats squawking are people who either (a) get money from private equity firms or (b) have retired and joined Mondo Casino. But there is another side to this story:

I suspect that these Bain attacks are working. Indeed, I suspect the reason that the Obama campaign–and the President himself in an extraordinary moment at the NATO press conference last week–are so adamant about pursuing this tactic is that it (a) lays the predicate for the anti-Romney campaign to come and (b) has been extremely effective with focus groups. And so, what we may be seeing here is the exact opposite of a stumble.

But are the attacks fair? No and yes. The job losses associated with the private equity brand of capitalism are, in fact, the least important long-term aspect of the story. It’s true, contra Krugman today (although Paul is absolutely right about his larger point, the bogus nature of the bankers’ narrative), that a great many American companies had become stagnant and bloated in the 1970s and that transitions had to be made to keep them profitable, especially in the area of information technology, and these transitions wiped out a lot of middle management jobs but made those companies more productive. Consultants like Bain suddenly became prominent and profitable because they helped companies through this transition.

Romney took Bain to the next logical step–investing in companies that Bain improved. There was nothing wrong, and much that was right, about this in each individual case. Romney is telling the truth as he sees it: sometimes these investments didn’t work out, but often they did and the profits were huge. It’s also true that sharkier sorts, seeing the profits that could be wrung up in debt for equity swaps, jumped into the market in a far less responsible way than Bain had and engaged in the vulture capitalism–we’ll always be grateful to Rick Perry for that term–that has helped to hollow out the economy.

It seems to me that Obama’s immediate point is wrong: Romney wasn’t primarily about job destruction and corporate plundering. His larger point–that Romney was not so much about job-creation as he was about profit-creation–is correct, though. But the largest point of all is this: private equity capitalism was all about short-term profits–maximizing shareholder value–rather than long-term growth. It ushered in an era of massive executive compensation and bonuses. It prospered because of tax rules that made debt more profitable than equity, and a “carried interest” tax dodge that enabled Mitt Romney to pay a lower percentage in taxes than your average construction worker. It can be a useful tool in restructuring companies and steering them toward profitability, but it is not the sort of model you’d want to apply to the entire American economy.

A President has to be about long-term growth, not short-term profits–and to the extent that Barack Obama is using the Bain ads to make this larger argument, he is not “stumbling” or attacking “free enterprise,” but he is steering the conversation toward the most important topic this year: what sort of economy do we want to have and how do we get there?

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