Does Obama 'demonize,' 'denigrate' almost every sector of our economy?

During his victory speech after the Florida primary, Mitt Romney blasted President Barack Obama, saying he "demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.” We took a closer look.
During his victory speech after the Florida primary, Mitt Romney blasted President Barack Obama, saying he "demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.” We took a closer look.

During the speech following his victory in the Florida Republican primary on Jan. 31, 2012, presidential candidate Mitt Romney criticized President Barack Obama for his stance toward American business.

"President Obama's view of a free economy is to send your money to his friends. My vision for a free enterprise economy is to return entrepreneurship and genius and creativity to the American people. On one of the most personal matters of our lives, our health care, President Obama would turn decision making over to government bureaucrats. He forced through Obama-care, and I will repeal it.

"You know, like his colleagues in the faculty lounge, who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy. I will make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, for innovators and job creators and unlike the other people running for president, I know how to do that because I've done it before."

There’s a lot to consider in those two paragraphs, but a reader asked us to check whether it’s true that "President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy." So that’s what we focused on. (Romney later repeated the claim verbatim in his victory speech after the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 4, 2012.)

The American Heritage Dictionary defines "demonize" as "to represent as evil or diabolic," and defines "denigrate" as "to attack the character or reputation of; speak ill of; defame (or) to disparage; belittle."

Ultimately, we decided that drawing distinctions between the terms "denigrate" and "demonize" and less forceful words like "criticize" made it impossible for us to put this claim to the Truth-O-Meter. But we still thought our readers would benefit from an extended discussion of how Obama has painted businesses in his public remarks.

First, we contacted the Romney campaign to obtain examples of Obama’s demonization or denigration of business and industry. Next, we looked through dozens of Obama’s speeches that addressed the question of business and industry.

The Romney campaign’s examples

Obama’s criticism of the campaign finance practices of foreign affiliates of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In 2010, Obama and his allies made several claims that foreign money was financing attack ads against Democrats.

"Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for these ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations," Obama said. ‘"So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections."

Though Obama wasn’t specific, media scrutiny quickly fell on foreign affiliates of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. At the time, we gave a Half True rating to Obama’s allegation that "groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections." The New York Times joined us in expressing skepticism, writing that "a closer examination shows that there is little evidence that what the chamber does in collecting overseas dues is improper or even unusual, according to both liberal and conservative election-law lawyers and campaign finance documents."

Business owners report feeling demonized and denigrated.

The Romney campaign pointed us to a POLITICO story describing a conference call by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn -- who has given money to politicians of both parties -- in which he went on a "rant" against Obama, saying he was "the greatest wet blanket to business, progress and job creation in my lifetime."

The campaign also noted comments by Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus on CNBC in which he accused the administration of portraying "job creators" as "villains and monsters."

And the campaign pointed to an article in The Economist: "The Economist has lost count of the number of prominent chief executives, many of them Democrats, who complain privately that the president does not understand their trade — that he treats them merely as adornments at photocalls and uses teleprompters to talk to them; that he shows scant interest in their views on which tax cuts would persuade them to hire people; that his team is woefully short of anyone who has had to meet a payroll (there are fewer businesspeople in this White House than in any recent administration); and that regulatory uncertainty is hampering their willingness to invest."

We find these three examples provide little justification, however.

What particular business executives say about Obama doesn't provide much support for Romney's sweeping claim. We think it's important to look at Obama’s comments directly -- something we’ll do in a moment.

In addition, the Romney campaign’s use of the quotation from The Economist is undermined by a bit of selective editing. The rest of the article, which is really more of an extended introduction to a reader poll than a news article, is as follows: "But a president who truly wanted to wage war on business would have hung onto GM, not rushed to return it to the private sector. Card check (a policy backed by labor unions) has not been pushed. The finance bill, though bureaucratic, is not a Wall Street killer. With the exception of a China-bashing tyre tariff and a retreat on Mexican trucks, Mr Obama has eschewed protectionism. A lot of government cash has flowed to businesses, not least through the stimulus package. And above all his policies have helped pull the economy out of recession. Still, the main thing that is hurting business is uncertainty. And Mr. Obama has left many questions that are important to business unanswered. So, do you think Barack Obama is hostile to business? Cast your vote, and add your comments below."

Obama has spoken critically of particular industries.

Obama has long expressed criticism of the excesses of Wall Street that helped feed the economic downturn that began in 2007 and 2008. In particular, his speech in Osawatomie, Kan., on Dec. 6, 2011, set out a broad vision that argued that the nation should curb extreme inequality and excesses within American capitalism.

"In 2008, the house of cards collapsed," Obama said. "We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets -- and huge bonuses -- made with other people’s money on the line. … It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. … Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak, and there’s no price for being a repeat offender."

Earlier in his presidency, when his health care bill was at stake, Obama sometimes criticized health insurers. In a toughly worded radio address on Oct. 17, 2009, Obama blamed the industry for "filling the airwaves with deceptive and dishonest ads" and "funding studies designed to mislead the American people."

Finally, the Romney campaign pointed to comments critical of the oil industry, including some at a town hall in Reno, Nev., on April 21, 2011. Obama cited "$4 billion in taxpayer subsidies that right now are going to big oil companies even though they are making billions of dollars a year as it is because of these high oil prices. Four billion dollars a year are going to companies that are making record profits -- even during the recession they were making big profits. The big five oil companies over the last five years, the least they’ve made in profits is $75 billion. The most they’ve made is $125 billion."

Collectively, these examples probably represent the Romney camp’s strongest evidence. While we don’t think Obama’s attacks against Wall Street, health insurers or oil companies were beyond the pale of political discourse, it’s true that they were pointed criticisms of particular industry sectors. It’s a judgment call whether Obama’s comments qualify as "demonizing" or "denigrating," but they are certainly negative.

Still, even if you were to accept that these critiques qualify as "demonizing" or "denigrating," there’s still reason to be skeptical about how much they justify Romney’s charge.

First, these attacks pertain to three specific industries -- and to particular, controversial activities by those industries -- rather than "almost every sector of our economy."

And second, they cherry-pick a few negative comments from among many more positive ones about business generally. So we’ll now take a wider look at what Obama has said about business in America.

The rest of Obama’s rhetoric

Obama has also said a lot of nice things about business, and about industry sectors specifically, during his time as president. We’ll list them chronologically by the date of the speech.

• "Running a successful small business is impressive in any year -- but it’s especially impressive this year, at this moment when we’re facing the most serious economic downturn in generations. And I know that what you do isn’t easy. I know that for every contract you’ve won, every sale that you’ve made and job you’ve created, you’ve had plenty of setbacks and false starts and late nights wondering how on earth you’re going to keep everything together and why you decided to take this path in the first place. But you kept on going. You scrimped and you saved and you borrowed and you improvised. And your failures didn’t discourage you -- they educated you and they motivated you to succeed the next time around. And today, we honor that courage and determination and daring just as much as we honor the success that it ultimately brought you. … Google started out as a small business; that was a research project. Hewlett-Packard began with two guys in a garage. The first Apple computers were built by hand, one at a time. McDonald’s started with just one restaurant." -- remarks at a ceremony to honor small business award winners, May 19, 2009

• "Ultimately, I believe the success of the American economy depends not on the efforts of government, but on the innovation and enterprise of America’s businesses. And it will be America’s businesses that help us emerge from this period of economic crisis and economic turmoil. … because of the caliber of the leaders and businesses represented in this room, because of the ingenuity of our entrepreneurs, because of the drive and skill and talents of our people, I believe -- and I know you believe -- that our best days are still ahead of us." -- remarks to the Business Council on May 4, 2010

• "Being a successful small business person isn’t just about collecting a profit or outperforming your competition. It’s about contributing to the success of this country’s economy. It’s about contributing to your country’s continued growth and prosperity. And it’s about securing your piece of the American Dream and helping your employees and your suppliers and all the people you work with secure their piece of the American Dream. … Maybe somebody finally decides to take a chance on his dream. Maybe a worker decides it’s time to become her own boss. Either way, these entrepreneurial pioneers embody the spirit of possibility, the tireless work ethic, and the simple hope for something better that lies at the heart of the American ideal. Some of you have opened mom-and-pop stores that have led to America’s biggest, most successful companies. Some have launched technology companies -- software and IT services that have redefined the marketplace. You collectively create two out of every three jobs here in the United States of America -- two out of every three jobs. And that’s why small businesses aren’t just the backbone of this economy -- you’re also the driving force behind this recovery." -- remarks at the White House Rose Garden, May 25, 2010

• "What’s guided us is a simple principle: Government can’t guarantee your success ... but government can knock down some of the barriers that stand in the way of small business success and help create the conditions where small businesses can grow and hire and create new products and prosper. … I’m absolutely convinced that there are brighter days ahead for America -- an America where businesses like this one aren’t just thriving but are powering our economic growth." -- remarks at American Cord & Webbing Co. in Woonsocket, R.I., Oct. 25, 2010

• "As we speak, American-made machinery is helping India improve its infrastructure, including the new airport here in Mumbai where I landed this morning. This year, there was a new sight on India’s highways -– American-made Harley-Davidson motorcycles. A growing number of American-made aircraft are taking flight in your skies. And soon, there will be more." -- remarks to the U.S.-India Business Council and Entrepreneurship Summit, Nov. 8, 2010

• "America’s success didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t happen by accident. It happened because [of] the freedom that has allowed good ideas to flourish, that has allowed capitalism to thrive; it happened because of the conviction that in this country hard work should be rewarded and that opportunity should be there for anybody who’s willing to reach for it. … We still have, by far, the world’s largest and most vibrant economy. We have the most productive workers, the finest universities and the freest markets. The men and women in this room are living testimony that American industry is still the source of the most dynamic companies, and the most ingenious entrepreneurs. … Right now, businesses across this country are proving that America can compete. Caterpillar is opening a new plant to build excavators in Texas that used to be shipped from Japan. In Tennessee, Whirlpool is opening their first new U.S. factory in more than a decade. Dow is building a new plant in Michigan to manufacture batteries for electric vehicles. A company called Geomagic, a software maker, decided to close down its overseas centers in China and Europe and move their R&D here to the United States. These companies are bringing jobs back to our shores. And that’s good for everybody." -- remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Feb. 7, 2011

• "Obviously the big companies generally get most of the attention in our economy, and the success of large companies is critical to the success of medium and small businesses as well.   But it’s small businesses like yours that help drive America’s economic growth and create two out of every three new jobs. You’re the anchors of our Main Streets, small businesses built by folks who live and work in the community and look out for one another that end up determining success or failure of cities and towns. They’re the cornerstones of America’s promise, the idea that if you’ve got a dream and you’ve got the work ethic to see it through, you can succeed.  And when our small businesses do well, then America does well." -- remarks at a forum on small business in Cleveland, Feb. 22, 2011

• "When our businesses send more products overseas, it supports the workers who make and sell those products. And I think most American businessmen who are here understand this." -- remarks at a business summit in Brasilia, Brazil, March 19, 2011

• "I don’t want the next generation of manufacturing jobs taking root in countries like China or Germany. I want them taking root in places like Michigan and Ohio and Virginia and North Carolina. And that’s a race that America can win. That’s the race businesses like these will help us win. These are CEOs who take pride in hiring people here in America, not just because it’s increasingly the right thing to do for their bottom line, but also because it’s the right thing to do for their workers and for our communities and for our country. And they’re leading by example. I’m proud of that, as an American. But as President, I also want to make sure they get some credit for it." -- remarks at the White House on the "insourcing" of American jobs, Jan. 11, 2012

• "So that’s what this is all about: telling the world that America is open for business; making it as safe and as simple as possible to visit; helping our businesses all across the country grow and create jobs; helping those businesses compete and win." -- remarks by the president at Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Jan. 19, 2012

• "We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back. What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh. We can’t bring every job back that’s left our shore. But right now, it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. Today, for the first time in 15 years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity. So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it.  Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed." -- State of the Union address, Jan. 24, 2012

This selection of quotes from presidential speeches suggests that Obama has often made a point of cheering American business, both generally and specific companies.

Obama’s nuance

Finally, Romney’s charge -- that Obama "demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy" -- carries with it the strong suggestion that the president deployed a caricature when referring to businesses. But there’s evidence that Obama has actually used quite a bit of nuance in his portrayal -- even when referring to his biggest target, Wall Street.

In an April 22, 2010, speech at Cooper Union in New York City  -- which was intended to push for stiffer Wall Street oversight -- Obama offered a measured critique.

"I believe in the power of the free market," he said. "I believe in a strong financial sector that helps people to raise capital and get loans and invest their savings. That’s part of what has made America what it is. But a free market was never meant to be a free license to take whatever you can get, however you can get it. That’s what happened too often in the years leading up to this crisis.  Some -- and let me be clear, not all -- but some on Wall Street forgot that behind every dollar traded or leveraged there’s family looking to buy a house, or pay for an education, open a business, save for retirement. What happens on Wall Street has real consequences across the country, across our economy."

He added, "I want to reiterate: There is a legitimate role for these financial instruments in our economy. They can help allay risk and spur investment. And there are a lot of companies that use these instruments to that legitimate end -- they are managing exposure to fluctuating prices or currencies, fluctuating markets. … The problem is these markets operated in the shadows of our economy, invisible to regulators, invisible to the public. So reckless practices were rampant.  Risks accrued until they threatened our entire financial system."

Obama even went so far as to assign a share of the blame to ordinary Americans, rather than just Wall Street. "This financial crisis wasn’t just the result of decisions made in the executive suites on Wall Street; it was also the result of decisions made around kitchen tables across America, by folks who took on mortgages and credit cards and auto loans."

In conclusion

Romney has a point that Obama has often called out American business -- he’s urged greater government oversight of Wall Street, backed curbs on tax benefits for sending American jobs overseas or for oil companies collecting record profits. He also has criticized business groups and industries for their advertising campaigns against his administration’s proposals.

But Obama’s criticisms have generally been targeted at just a few industries and at extreme practices within those industries. And Obama has regularly pointed to American businesses generally, and specific companies individually, as admirable. Even when he attacked Wall Street at a high-profile speech in 2010, he was very careful not to turn the financial industry into a caricature, offering a much more nuanced picture than Romney’s charge would suggest.