You may have heard that Barack Obama said that the private sector is “doing fine” during his press conference last week. I was one of the thousands (it seemed) who immediately tweeted on it…so here’s the deal.

In context, what Obama said was that state and local governments are a drag on the economy, while the private sector is doing fine. The first part of that is true, but the second half, even in context, is still both wrong and a gaffe, in my book.

We’re already seeing some immediate pushback from some of the press that others are going after this one unfairly (see David Weigel, not an Obama apologist, here), but I think that’s wrong. Yes, the private sector is creating jobs — but not nearly enough to get back to normal unemployment. And that’s almost certainly true even with a very generous estimate of the effects of the public sector hits (hits which, as regular readers know, I think are a very big deal, and I’m happy to see the president pushing the point). It seems to me that defenders of the president are making a real mistake if they try to argue that he was correct and that the economy is “fine” other than state and local government jobs. After all, Obama’s jobs proposals are intended to help the not-really-all-that-fine private sector as well as state and local governments.

The flip side of this is that gaffes, especially in June, aren’t going to matter. It’s not even likely that Obama will suffer a temporary hit in the polls from this, but it’s as certain as these things can be that it won’t affect voters in November. Oh, the Romney campaign is sure to make sure that everyone hears this one, but no one is going to care unless they already are looking to punish Obama over the economy — and for people in that category, if this didn’t come along something else would have done just fine. In other words, we’re exactly where we were before the press conference: what matters is the actual economy, not how Obama or Romney talk about it.

So: real gaffe, doesn’t affect November outcome. Everyone okay with that?

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.