Can Obama shift his off-shoring attack to policy?

If Obama really wants to make his attacks on Mitt Romney stick, he’ll have to show how private-sector business deals from more than a decade ago will impact policy.  Can he do that?  So far, Obama seems incapable of distinguishing between outsourcing and off-shoring, a distinction that reinforces Obama’s unfamiliarity with the business world, but Obama wants to try linking history with policy.  He has already begun, by attacking Mitt Romney’s plan to reform the corporate tax code as a stealth method of rewarding off-shoring:

President Obama put a new spin on his attack on Mitt Romney as an “outsourcer,” citing a new commentary in a campaign speech today that suggests that his rival’s policies will lead to American jobs shifting overseas. …

Speaking at a town hall-style meeting in Cincinnati, Obama referenced the analysis by Reed College columnist Kimberly Clausing in Tax Notes that found Romney’s support for changes in the territorial tax system would “increase employment in low-tax countries by about 800,000 jobs.”

At the heart of the Obama campaign’s argument is Romney’s support for eliminating U.S. taxes on foreign profits by American companies, which it says encourages U.S. companies to move their operations overseas. Clausing, an expert in international taxation, says the policy shift would lead to hundreds of thousands of jobs being shifted to China, India, Canada and other countries.

“There is a new study out by a non-partisan economist that Gov. Romney’s economic plan would in fact create 800,000 jobs,” Obama said. “There’s only one problem. The jobs wouldn’t be in America.”

The GOP jumped all over Obama for referring to Clausing as “non-partisan,” as our own Erika Johnsen did.  Clausing is an Obama ally who has at least a political interest in attacking Romney’s territorial tax plan.  But what about other partisans who work with Obama — specifically, his own advisers?  Jake Tapper reported yesterday that no fewer than three of Obama’s advisory panels backed Romney’s approach over the last two years, and for the exact same reasons:

The president will make the argument today that those overseas jobs would be created at the expense of jobs created in the U.S.

Romney is far from alone in endorsing a territorial tax system, which would allow the profits made by an American corporation in another country to escape U.S. taxation. In fact, a number of advisers to the president support the idea as well – including members of the President’s Export Council, the commission the president set up to recommend ways to reduce the deficit, and members of his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

The Export Council was established almost 40 years ago and continues to this day as an established economic advisory panel whose expertise is precisely in this area.  The other two panels — Simpson-Bowles and Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness — were established by Obama specifically to address perceived incompetence on the part of his administration on fiscal and economic policy.  Obama sold these as expert panels whose recommendations would get serious attention, but on both the budget and the corporate tax, Obama has ignored their proposals.

In my column for The Week, I argue that Obama is about to hand Romney a very big bat by attacking a proposal that has been repeatedly made by the President’s hand-picked advisers — especially as polling shows that no one thinks of Obama as anything other than a politician these days:

A new poll on the subject of ethics and business gives even less reason to believe that this strategy will pay dividends. Rasmussensurveyed 1,000 likely voters last Friday and Saturday on whether Mitt Romney’s business record gives voters a reason to vote for or against him. While 74 percent of respondents had followed the debate over Romney’s business dealings somewhat or very closely, the result was a split at 41 percent for voting for or against. Independents narrowly tilted toward support, 40-37, but that is still in the margin of error. Middle-age and senior voters broke more strongly positive, however, 48-39 and 57-31, respectively — which may mean that Team Obama is reinforcing a strong Romney point among the voters most likely to turn out in this election.

On the question of ethics, the news turns even worse for Obama. Slightly more voters see Romney as more ethical than the norm among politicians (27 percent) than there are voters who see him as worse than the norm (25 percent), with 40 percent seeing no real difference. The numbers for Obama go the other direction. Thirty-six percent believe Obama to have worse ethics than the norm, while 32 percent believe Obama to be an improvement, while only 28 percent see him as the norm. That’s a damning indictment for the man who won in 2008 on the platform of hope and change.

Expect a return of the incompetence argument when Obama brings up corporate tax reform:

And what about President Obama’s own Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, formed to enhance common perception about Obama’s economic policies? The panel not only supports the territorial tax plan proposed by Romney, it made the same argument at the end of last year that the lack of such reform kept badly-needed capital overseas — capital that could fuel job creation in the U.S., and protect American firms from foreign takeovers …

Instead of making the case that Romney will increase off-shoring, Obama’s refusal to adopt the territorial tax system that Obama’s own advisers have repeatedly proposed makes the case that Obama can’t grasp the problem at all. Furthermore, if Obama attacks Romney as an “outsourcer” and extremist in economics on this basis, the existence of these proposals within his own administration will deepen the impression that Obama’s ethics make him just another politician willing to say anything to get re-elected, and incompetent on economics to boot. For a candidate whose main campaign promise was to change that very impulse in Washington, and whose economy has gone into serious retreat, that will all but eliminate any argument Obama has for a second term.

What’s more, the strategy risks getting voters interested in the debate as it turns to today’s economy, and not that of 1999.  As one GOP consultant said on Sunday, that will only help Romney:

“You can’t run on biography anymore. That’s Mitt’s weakness, because the ads destroy biography,” Republican consultant Mike Murphy said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “It going to come down to a jump ball of who’s got the better forward plan on the economy.”

“I’ll take Romney in that fight,” he added, “but the sooner it starts the better.”

Maybe he should send the White House a thank-you note for accelerating its start.

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