Make no mistake about it: Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker did his best on Meet the Press to throw President Barack Obama under the bus.
Political pros don't go on national TV and call their candidate "nauseating" by accident.
And as a campaign surrogate who equated Obama's attacks on businessman Mitt Romney's business record with guilt-by-association attacks on Obama's membership in Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church, on Sunday Booker clearly went rogue on his own guy.
He probably thought he had no choice but to speak up on behalf of the investor class, considering that he's got lots of constituents who make a living on Wall Street. But there's a difference between saying "I'm not about to sit here and indict private equity" — a perfectly reasonable position — and describing Obama's negative ads as "nauseating."
Booker, a former college football star, knows that the flanker doesn't trash the starting quarterback.
Plus, he should know that Obama isn't attacking Romney's record in a political vacuum. He's responding to Romney's repeated — and condescending — charge that Obama just "doesn't understand" how the economy works.
On The Rachel Maddow Show Monday, Booker tried to get back on Obama's side, arguing that when Romney "says 'I was a job creator,' I think that's a characterization of his record that deserves inquiry." Fair enough. But when GOP.org boasts the mocking slogan "I stand with Cory," the damage is done.
But there's a silver lining here for Team Obama. And if they learn the right lesson from the gaffe, it could be Booker who winds up saving them from what has so far been a diffuse and listless re-election effort.
Because Booker has a point: The case that Obama prosecutes against Romney shouldn't be an indictment of private equity or corporate America. Obama should be making the very specific argument that Romney's talent for flipping companies isn't the same skill set that's needed to brace the economy or stare down Muammar Qaddafi.
Which is what Booker's comments forced Obama to do during Monday's closing press briefing at the Chicago NATO Summit, explaining that while a private equity guy's "priority is to maximize profits" — rightly so — "when you're president … your job is to think about those workers who get laid off."
It's the difference between a CEO and the Commander-in-Chief, and it's the case that Obama so far hasn't succeeded in making to the public — which gets in the president's way when he tries to convince voters that he's pro business.
And he is pro business.
In his last meaningful vote as a senator, Obama voted for the TARP bailout that saved the financial industry on which our system — including private equity — relies. It was a vote, it's worth noting, that Romney supported at the time. But Obama can't win the war of words over market principles until he's able to put his efforts to protect the system in context.
Obama's best bets were the GM and Chrysler bailouts — saving those companies and their subcontractor supply chains in Michigan, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. But he hasn't done a good job explaining that while both he and Romney favored structured bankruptcy, unlike Romney — the professional investor — Obama guessed correctly that government would be the only willing investor at the time.
And with arguably the best horse trade of his presidency, Obama extended Bush-era top marginal income tax rates that congressional Republicans — and professional investors — wanted in exchange for a grab bag of Democrats' priorities, including an extension of benefits to unemployed Americans — otherwise known to businessmen as "customers."
The deal was a win-win on economic stimulus and underscores Obama's point about what presidents do that private equity, investment banks and wealth-management funds don't: They have to factor in more than just profit and can't just look at the bottom line.
Which means that Booker is right: Obama's best case isn't attacking Romney or his firm, Bain Capital. He should say, "Romney made money for investors, and he was good at it."
But that's not all there is to being president.
David Swerdlick is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.