The Romney campaign thinks they have a winning Obama gaffe on their hands. At a Univision election forum this afternoon, President Obama admitted that one thing he learned in his first term is that "you can’t change Washington from inside, only from the outside." Within the hour, Romney was blasting Obama in a campaign speech, claiming that Obama "threw in the white flag of surrender." After all, Obama had promised to bring change to Washington. If he's admitting that he can't, then he's clearly resigned himself to defeat.
For something like the 60th time this election season, however, the Romney line of attack relies on ignoring some important context. A fuller look at Obama's remarks clarifies his message:
“I’ve learned some lessons. Most important is you can’t change Washington from inside, only from the outside. That’s how some of our biggest accomplishments like health care got done — mobilizing the American people."
Whether or not you agree with Obama's take on how health-care reform was accomplished (Ezra Klein, for one, notes that it didn't really happen that way at all), it's clear that, far from admitting that he had failed to enact change, Obama was actually describing how he'd done it, which couldn't be any further from "throwing in the white flag of surrender." And it seems to be the exact same philosophy espoused by Obama back in November of 2007. The presidency, Obama said, "involves having a vision for where the country needs to go ... and then being able to mobilize and inspire the American people to get behind that agenda for change.”
Of course, the Romney campaign and its allies won't mention the context of Obama's remarks. Context is a pesky thing. Get rid of it, and you can make it appear that a candidate believes anything. Take this line for example:
"I don't think you change Washington from the inside. I think you change it from the outside."
That was Mitt Romney, in December of 2007, almost perfectly echoing Obama today. Romney was making an altogether different point: That changing Washington required an outsider like Mitt Romney, not an insider like John McCain. But that's context. Romney has no use for context.