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Obama's private sector comment echoes McCain gaffe from '08. But is it the same?

President Obama gave a press conference Friday morning to get out his message on the economy.

President Obama gave a press conference Friday morning to get out his message on the economy. But he may have done more harm than good with some clumsy comments about the state of private-sector job growth.

"We've created 4.3 million jobs over the past 27 months," he said in response to a question. "The private sector is doing fine." 

Republicans wasted no time in pouncing. 

"He said the private sector is doing fine," Mitt Romney told a crowd. "Is he really that out of touch? I think he's defining what it means to be detached and out of touch with the American people." 

On msnbc's Now With Alex Wagner, the panel mulled just how much that gaffe will hurt Obama.

Buzzfeed's Ben Smith compared it to a similar slip-up by Obama's opponent in 2008. "It reminded me so much of McCain's, 'the fundamentals of the economy are strong.'" said Smith. "Where you know, if you looked into the nuance, he kind of had a point: The financial industry was a disaster, the real economy was OK. And that's what [McCain's] people were trying to explain after the fact, that's what he was trying to say. So if Obama does get burned by this, there's perhaps some justice in it."

The comparison isn't quite apt, though. Calling the private sector "fine" may be too positive, but most economists would say it's gradually recovering. It's the cuts to government jobs—mostly state and local jobs—that are what's holding down the jobs numbers right now. Case in point: May's jobs report showed private employers added 82,000 jobs last month, while the public sector shed 13,000. So Obama's statement was off, but not wildly so.

By contrast, McCain's assessment that the fundamentals of the economy are strong—which came the very day after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy—was almost completely untrue. The idea that, as Smith would have it, "the financial industry was a disaster, the real economy was OK," flies in the face of what we know about the downturn. Though the Great Recession was triggered by a financial crisis that started on Wall Street, its root cause was the bursting of a massive housing bubble, involving an excess of consumer debt, which for years had been artificially inflating the economy. The fundamentals of the economy could hardly have been less strong, and we've been paying the price ever since.  

Here's the larger point though: The media would serve the public better if they spent more time assessing the actual validity of the things politicians say, and less time debating the political damage they might inflict. As The Washington Post's Ezra Klein put it:  [I don't] understand why the media see it as part of their job to police the statements of politicians for comments that opposing campaigns might find helpful."

Late Update, 3:31pm: Obama is clarifying his comments, telling reporters in the Oval Office it's "absolutely clear" the economy is not fine, Politico reports.


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