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How Dare They: GOP 'Hijacked the News Cycle' to Exploit Obama's 'Six Words' on Private Sector 'Doing Fine,' Says NYT's Calmes

Late in the 2008 campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain was whacked in a front-page story in the Times for saying the "fundamentals of our economy are strong." But after President Obama said on Friday that "the private sector is doing fine" (he walked the statement back hours later) Times reporter Jackie Calmes conjured up some spin on Obama's behalf.

The slant was evident even in the headline, "Six Words From Obama, and a Barrage in Return From Republicans" with the strong assumption that the GOP was unfairly jumping on a minor gaffe.

With good reason, presidents have long been said to hold the power of the bully pulpit. But when President Obama sought to wield it on Friday, by calling a White House news conference to showcase his concern for the economy and Republicans’ refusal to work with him, he was the one who ended up getting pummeled.

By late afternoon, Mr. Obama was forced to clarify one line from his morning session with reporters -- “the private sector is doing fine” -- after Congressional Republicans and his presidential rival, Mitt Romney, had seized on the comment to criticize Mr. Obama as out-of-touch and detached from the millions of Americans who cannot find jobs or have given up looking.

“Listen, it is absolutely clear that the economy is not doing fine. That’s the reason I had the press conference,” Mr. Obama said in clarifying his earlier remark when asked about Mr. Romney’s criticism during an Oval Office appearance with the president of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III.

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But for the day at least, the damage was done, as Republicans hijacked the news cycle with their barrage against Mr. Obama’s six words in a professorial 29-minute exchange. While the metaphor of the bully pulpit originated with President Theodore Roosevelt about a century ago and generally remains apt, it does not allow for a 21st-century media environment of constant cable television chatter, blogging and instant Internet videos that empower a president’s opponents to bully back.

Calmes felt the need to explain what Obama really meant.

Mr. Obama’s point at his news conference was that for more than two years, monthly jobs reports have shown growth in the private sector, but continuing cutbacks in the public sector as state and local governments slash jobs in their struggle to balance their budgets; the public sector -- not the private sector -- most needs additional government help.

Calmes actually provided "context" to bolster Obama's argument for him.

Mr. Obama’s comment, in context, was: “We’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government -- oftentimes, 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.”

Republicans hope they can turn Mr. Obama’s “doing fine” line into the sort of bumper-sticker comment that would damage him with swing voters much like his 2008 rival, Senator John McCain, was hurt when he said “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” Mr. McCain, however, spoke in September 2008 as the financial system was already imploding, and his comment underscored his well-known and self-acknowledged unfamiliarity with economic policy.

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Mr. Obama’s news conference also provoked Republicans to revive their charge that he is blaming Europe’s ills for slow growth here to distract from his own culpability.

“He used his old standby excuse -- headwinds -- for his failure on the economy,” said Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee.

Yet many economists say that Europe is a big factor in the American outlook. AllianceBernstein, an asset management firm in Manhattan, wrote to clients and reporters on Friday that it had slightly lowered its forecast for economic growth this year “amid increasing international headwinds facing the U.S. economy.” And Bank of America Merrill Lynch said “the uncertainty shock from Europe is building rapidly, undercutting both U.S. and global growth.”