'If you've got a business—you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Despite President Obama's effort to walk back these remarks, the damage they've caused to him remains. And that's because what he said in Roanoke, Va., on July 13 came across as a true expression of his worldview.
The president's vivid words did not come out of nowhere. While pushing for higher taxes on upper-income people, Mr. Obama often refers to the wealthy as "fortunate" (such as at a Democratic National Committee event last September) and "incredibly blessed" (at a campaign event on July 23). Translation: Successful people don't really deserve to keep what they earn.
"You didn't build that" is not Mr. Obama's only recent problematic statement. In a June 8 news conference, he said "The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government." And in Oakland, Calif., on July 24, he told donors that on the economy, "We tried our plan and it worked!" These comments make voters wince.
Every candidate stumbles verbally, but in 2008 Mr. Obama did so less frequently than most. He was disciplined, on message, and gave his opponent few openings. So what is different this time?
One factor may be overscheduling. Mr. Obama has attended an extraordinary 195 fundraisers in the 16 months since he filed for re-election on April 4, 2011 (according to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller). Many people don't fully appreciate how much of a drain it is on a candidate—involving travel, a speech or two, private meetings with particularly energetic (or obnoxious) money bundlers, and always plenty of advice. Most fundraisers also include a long photo line where the candidate grips and grins for dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs.
I observed first-hand how difficult it was to wedge 86 fundraisers onto President George W. Bush's calendar over the 14.5 months from May 16, 2003 (when he filed for re-election) through July 2004. In comparison, it is astonishing how much time Mr. Obama has spent scrabbling for cash.
That's not all. You need to add to the fundraising calendar an early and very active campaign schedule as well. Remember last August's three-day bus trip through the Midwest? And then there are the demands of Mr. Obama's day job.
In short, the president may be nearly exhausted. If he is, the normal inner discipline that protects a candidate from saying too much, being too blunt, or sharing too openly may be weakening.
Despite the scramble for money, Mr. Obama's campaign fundraising take is behind its 2008 pace, and its overhead is enormous (according to monthly FEC filings by his campaign and the Democratic National Committee). His cash advantage over Mr. Romney was probably gone as of July 31, in large measure because (according to public records at TV stations) Team Obama has spent at least $131 million on television the last three months.
These ads have not moved him up in the polls. The race is tied in the July 30 Gallup poll at 46%. Neither have the ads strengthened public approval of Mr. Obama's handling of the economy, which is stuck at 44% in the July 22 NBC/WSJ poll, nor have they erased Mr. Romney's seven-point lead in that poll regarding who has "good ideas for how to improve the economy."
Roughly $111 million of Mr. Obama's ad blitz was paid for by his campaign; outside groups chipped in just over $20 million. The Romney campaign spent only $42 million over the same period in response, with $107.4 million more in ads attacking Mr. Obama's policies or boosting Mr. Romney coming from outside groups (with Crossroads GPS, a group I helped found, providing over half).
Mr. Obama's strategists know they won in 2008 in large part by outspending their opponents in the primaries and general election. They've tried that with Mr. Romney the last three months, and so far it isn't working. Still, just this week, according to public records, Team Obama has bought an additional $32 million in ads in nine battleground states for August.
Unanswered television ads do move poll numbers, as was the case in 2008. But these Obama ads won't go unanswered.
The response by the Romney campaign and Romney supporters will be amplified by the reality of a painfully weak economy, growing debt and unpopular ObamaCare. More fundraisers will not solve that problem, but they will create opportunities for a weary candidate to make more revealing and damaging statements.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 1, 2012.