CHILLECOTHE, Ohio — A comment by Vice President Joe Biden that Mitt Romney's banking policies would "put y'all back in chains" reverberated across the presidential campaign Tuesday, with Republicans accusing President Obama's team of seeking to divide Americans and Democrats accusing their rivals of faux outrage and hypocrisy.
Biden made the comment while campaigning in Danville, Va., on Tuesday.
"Romney wants to — he said in the first 100 days he's going to let the big banks once again write their own rules," Biden said. "Unchain Wall Street. They're going to put y'all back in chains."
Romney's campaign immediately seized upon the remark to argue that Obama's campaign was trying to demonize the unofficial Republican nominee. Romney highlighted it during an evening rally in Chillicothe as the most recent example of Obama campaign tactics that cheapen the nation's politics.
"His campaign and his surrogates have made wild and reckless accusations that disgrace the office of the presidency," Romney told thousands gathered in front of a picturesque brick courthouse. "Another outrageous charge just came a few hours ago in Virginia. And the White House sinks a little bit lower. This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like."
The Obama campaign defended Biden, noting that Republicans often speak of "unshackling" industry and Democrats of "unshackling" the middle class. And it said the speech Romney delivered in Ohio, faulting the president for running a grossly negative and demeaning campaign, was hypocritical.
"Gov. Romney's comments tonight seemed unhinged, and particularly strange coming at a time when he's pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false," said Ben LaBolt, an Obama spokesman.
At a rally later Tuesday in Wytheville, Va., Biden said he had used the wrong word and meant to say "unshackled" instead of "unchained." But he also dug in.
"I'm told that when I made that comment earlier today in Danville ... the Romney campaign put out a tweet … [and] went on the airwaves saying, 'Biden, he's outrageous in saying that,' " he said. "I got a message for them. If you want to know what's outrageous, it's their policies and the effects of their policies on middle-class America. That's what's outrageous."
Left unmentioned by both sides was the racial context of the remark. Biden made it in a community that is roughly half black and half white, and his audience included many African Americans.
Democrats are not the first to raise an issue with racial overtones. Romney has never made an overt racial reference, but recently has begun attacking Obama — falsely — for what he said was Obama's effort to void requiring welfare recipients to find work. Such arguments have in the past been used to appeal to working-class white voters resentful of the perception that they were paying for handouts to minorities.
A Romney campaign ad, which has aired extensively in swing states, claims that Obama has "quietly announced a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements" put into place in 1996. "Under Obama's plan, you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check."
In fact, the administration announced July 12 that it would consider requests from states that want to experiment with ways to find "more effective mechanisms for helping families succeed in employment." Five states, including Republican-led Utah and Nevada, had asked for that flexibility.
The policy would not end work requirements nor change central elements of the 1996 welfare reform law. Any state that fails to increase its work participation rates for welfare recipients by 20% will have its waiver revoked.
Mehta reported from Ohio and Memoli from Virginia.