Fact checking Mitt Romney’s announcement speech
“I'm Mitt Romney. I believe in America. And I'm running for President of the United States.”
— Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, June 2, 2011
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney officially announced his run for the presidency last week with a speech in New Hampshire that evoked a Reaganesque faith in America while hitting President Obama hard for his handling of the flagging economy.
As is typical of such speeches, there was a heavy sprinkling of “facts,” some of which we have cited for Pinocchios in the past. (Note to the campaign: we find this depressing.) Candidates must believe these facts are “too good to check.” Other facts Romney cited have only a tenuous connection to reality.
So, let’s dig deeper, examining the claims in the order in which Romney said them.
“When he took office, the economy was in recession, and he made it worse, and he made it last longer.”
With the unemployment rate ticking up in May , to 9.1 percent, the economy is definitely a weak spot for Obama. But Romney is stretching it here when he suggests that Obama has made the recession “worse…and made it last longer.”
Part of the problem is that the National Bureau of Economic Research, the nonpartisan research organization that identifies recessions, last year declared that the recession ended in June 2009 — two years ago. So, with NBER saying the economy is now out of a recession, it is difficult to see how Romney can claim that Obama made it worse.
A Romney campaign official, who declined to be identified, argued that the nation now has what he called a “recessionary economy.” He said that Obama made the situation worse by pushing through a stimulus bill that did not have enough tax relief. (About one-quarter of the $800 billion stimulus bill was immediate tax relief.)
“Three years later, unemployment is still above 8 percent, and that was the figure he said his stimulus would keep from happening.”
Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R) also used a variation of this line in his announcement speech last month. It wasn’t right then, and it isn’t right now. Obama never said this.
As we wrote then: “Pawlenty is referring to a projection issued on Jan. 9, 2009 — before Obama even took the oath of office — by two aides: Christina Romer, the nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, an incoming economic adviser to Vice President-elect Biden. The 14-page report thus was not an official government assessment, nor even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress. Instead, it was an attempt to assess the impact of a possible $775 billion stimulus package and what difference it would make compared to doing nothing.”
"These failing hopes make up President Obama’s own misery index. It’s never been higher. And what’s his answer? He says this: 'I’m just getting started.' "
The misery index is a concept that was created by the late economist Arthur Okun, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Lyndon Johnson. It is a simple metric that combines the unemployment rate with the inflation rate. There is even a website that tracks the index.
Jimmy Carter tormented Gerald Ford with constant references to the misery index during the 1976 presidential race, when the index stood at 13.57 percent. But then the tables were turned when Carter ran for re-election (and lost) and the index reached an all-time high of 21.98 percent in 1980.
But we were puzzled by Romney’s claim that the misery index has “never been higher” because the rate is now about 12.2 percent, almost half the level under Carter.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom explained that the “misery index for us is a rhetorical reference that encompasses real unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, national debt and whatever other indicator that Governor Romney wants to use to illustrate the mess the country finds itself in.”
Oh. Arthur Okun must be rolling in his grave.
Incidentally, Romney suggests that Obama recently said he was “just getting started.” The president made this comment in 2009.
“President Obama sees a different America, and he's taken us in a different direction. A few months into office, he traveled around the globe to apologize for America.”
As we said at the time: “The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context....Note to GOP speechwriters and campaign ad makers: The apology tour never happened.”
We find it interesting that in the foreign-policy part of the speech, Romney three times suggested Obama has “European answers” or gets his ideas “from the capitals of Europe.” There must be polling that suggests that “Europe” grates on American ears. Still, it is a strange charge to make against a man who had an African father and who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
“Did you know that government, federal, state and local, under President Obama has grown to consume to almost 40 percent of our economy? We're only inches away from ceasing to be a free economy. I will cap federal spending at 20 percent or less of the economy and finally, finally balance the budget.”
This is a confusing factoid. Romney mixes together all sorts of government spending, even though Obama has little to do with state and local spending. (Romney’s staff justifies it on the grounds that some state spending grew because of the stimulus bill.) Then, without context, he makes a pledge on federal spending — to “cap federal spending at 20 percent or less of the economy.”
Romney’s pledge is pretty meaningless. Federal spending, as percentage of the gross domestic product (the broadest measure of the economy), hit 25 percent in 2009 and then dropped to 23.8 percent in 2010. (See table 15.3.) It hit this high level largely because of the impact of the recession (the economy shrank) and the stimulus bill. As the nation’s economy expands, the percentage will keep shrinking.
Before the recession, in all but one year since 1996, federal spending as a percentage of the economy was less than 20 percent — and even as low as 18.2 percent. So Romney is giving himself a pretty low bar to jump.
We thought that Romney’s claim that the United States was “inches away from ceasing to be a free economy” was over-the-top rhetoric and kind of a non sequitur amid these percentage references. Our colleagues at PolitiFact.com looked at the data and rated the statement as “pants on fire.”
The Pinocchio Test
With the exception of the no-apology tour, most of these claims are one or two Pinocchio transgressions. On an average basis, we judge this to be a two-Pinocchio performance.