Mitt Romney’s claim that Obama said stimulus would keep unemployment below 8 percent
“Three years ago, a newly elected President Obama told America that if Congress approved his plan to borrow nearly a trillion dollars, he would hold unemployment below 8 percent.”
— Mitt Romney, Feb. 4, 2012
We had dealt with this claim more than a year ago, but we unaware that it had slipped into the former Massachusetts governor’s talking points until loyal reader Chuck Smith sent us a homemade, five-minute YouTube video challenging Romney to a $10,000 bet to prove that Obama actually ever said this. (See video at bottom of the column.)
We welcome reader contributions, especially when folks do their own research. (Smith has a separate video proposing that candidates or their aides pay a fine if their claims don’t pass muster with The Fact Checker or other nonpartisan fact-checking organizations. We like that idea.)
Since this claim is bound to crop up again in the campaign, perhaps it is time for a refresher course. (Smith notes that GOP.com also touts a similar version of this claim.)
Interestingly, the information to disprove this claim exists on the Romney campaign Web site. Far from being anything that Obama said, the Romney campaign acknowledges that this 8 percent figure comes from a staff-written projection issued Jan. 9, 2009 — before Obama had taken the oath of office. Of course, the campaign still spins it as a negative.
Here’s what happened. Two Obama aides, Christina Romer, the nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, an incoming economic adviser to Vice President-elect Biden, wrote a 14-page report that attempted to assess the impact of a possible $775 billion stimulus package and how much of a difference it would make compared to doing nothing.
Thus, it was not an official government assessment or even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress.
Page 4 of the report included a chart that showed that unemployment would peak at 8 percent in 2009, compared to 9 percent in 2010 if nothing was done. But the report also contained numerous caveats and warnings because, after all, it was merely a projection.
“Forecasts of the unemployment rate without the recovery plan vary substantially,” the report said. “Some private forecasters anticipate unemployment rates as high as 11% in the absence of action.” As Smith noted in his video, the report spoke of “considerable uncertainty” in the estimates and the potential for “significant margins of error.”
At the time, other economists had similar forecasts — Romer and Bernstein were in the mid-range — but the economy turned out to be in deeper trouble than most people thought. Even with a massive stimulus bill, the unemployment rate soared above 9 percent.
Indeed, a December 2008 confidential memo to Obama from incoming National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers — recently disclosed by the New Yorker — provides a window into the thinking at the time.
The memo warned Obama that without any stimulus, the economy was projected to “lose 3 to 4 million jobs in 2009.” (Ironically, the economy ended up losing that many jobs even with stimulus, a sign economists had not yet grasped the dimensions of the crisis.)
Summers wrote that the economic team had concluded that a $600 billion stimulus was too small and that Obama should go for something bigger. The memo then outlined four options, with the highest being $890 billion, to keep the unemployment rate from going above 8 percent.
The legislation that ultimately passed Congress was pegged at $787 billion; some lawmakers had balked at accepting any bill over $800 billion.On balance, most academic studies judge that the stimulus had a significant, positive effect on employment and growth, but some consider it to be a failure.
Romer, after she left the White House in 2010, said that the estimate of the impact of the stimulus bill was accurate but that the 8 percent “prediction was so far off” because economic conditions were so much worse.
“We, like virtually every other forecaster, failed to anticipate just how violent the recession would be in the absence of policy, and the degree to which the usual relationship between GDP [gross domestic product] and unemployment would break down,” Romer said.
In any case, Obama himself never “told America” that his plan “would hold unemployment below 8 percent,” as Romney claims. This was merely a staff report about a generic stimulus package, not even Obama’s own plan.
A Romney spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Given that we first outlined the problems with this claim more than a year ago — and given that the facts are clearly known to the Romney campaign — it is distressing that Romney would continue hype it up into such a misleading assertion.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker
Track each presidential candidate's campaign ads .
UPDATE: Another reader offers evidence to show that our ruling may be too harsh. What do you think?
UPDATE, March 22, 2012: We changed our ruling on this to TWO PINOCCHIOS. Find out why by following this link.
Watch Chuck Smith’s Challenge