The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
The political pundits are all declaring that Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate in Denver Wednesday night. And Democrats must surely be lamenting the fact that Obama did not go for the proverbial knock-out punch. But I was happy to see that the president did not utter the B word once during the debate.
Bain Capital, the sometimes bane of Mitt Romney's existence as a candidate going all the way back to the Republican primaries, was not mentioned once during the debate. In fact, President Obama failed to bring up Romney's private equity experience at all. I found that to be refreshing.
There are many legitimate differences between the economic policies of Obama and Romney that are worthy of debate. But the focus on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital for the past few months has been misguided. The president unfortunately has lapsed all too frequently into the populist mantra of trying to demonize those who are successful investors. Bain is mostly famous for backing firms like Staples (SPLS), Domino's Pizza (DPZ) and Dunkin' Brands (DNKN).
In May, Obama said at a press conference in Chicago that "when you're president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, then your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot." Two months later, the president told Charlie Rose "it is entirely appropriate" to look at Romney's record at Bain "and see whether in fact his focus was creating jobs and he successfully did that."
That rhetoric is consistent with Obama's now famous "fat cat bankers" remark about Wall Street CEOs during an interview on "60 Minutes" in 2009. And it's comments like that which make the president a target for accusations that he is anti-business ... even though he has taken many steps to help corporations large and small with tax cuts and stimulus spending.
There's also that little bailout of the auto industry. If Obama were truly against private enterprises, he would have let General Motors (GM) and Chrysler go into a true bankruptcy as opposed to a government-assisted one that ultimately saved them. By the way, Romney argued that the government should have "let Detroit go bankrupt."
Now, does the private equity industry have some significant flaws worth mentioning? Of course. If anything, a more apt criticism could be that this is an industry that, much like our nation's government, relies way too much on debt to succeed. And of course, many of the financial firms that the "fat cat bankers" run are guilty of the greed and short-sightedness that helped lead to the Great Recession.
But trying to maximize earnings is the point of an investment firm like Bain and publicly traded companies, such as all the large banks. So that should not be something that is maligned as anti-American.
With that in mind, I found it very telling that the president backtracked from the profits are bad meme Wednesday night. When discussing the Affordable Care Act, Obama went out of his way to say that "private insurers have to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that; that's what they do."
Hopefully, the rest of the campaign will focus more on the candidates' economic plans for the future like last night's debate did ... and not on the fact that Mitt Romney used to run an investment firm that occasionally cut jobs at companies after investing in them. But I'm not holding my breath.
The president may have made a conscious decision to not bring up Bain. Or maybe he just ran out of time since the two candidates clearly were not interested in following poor Jim Lehrer's numerous admonishments to stick to the agreed time schedule.
Either way, Obama's camp is still aggressively hitting the Bain angle in TV commercials. This new ad mentions Global-Tech, a Chinese appliance company Bain backed that the Obama campaign says succeeded thanks to paying its workers low wages.
The takeaway apparently is that we shouldn't believe Romney's tough talk about cracking down more forcefully on China for trade violations. The ad also makes the claim that "these appliances could have been made here in America."
So even though Obama didn't play the Bain angle Wednesday night, it's clear that it's still unfortunately a card that the campaign is holding up its sleeve.