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Not fine: When the rhetoric is on the other foot

at 06:02 AM ET, 06/11/2012

“The private sector is doing fine.”

— President Obama, June 8, 2012

Every politician has his or her talking points — the lines they repeat, over and over, to make their case. These lines are carefully crafted to present their case in the best possible light, or their opponent in the worst possible light.

The problem is when they start believing the spin themselves. That’s what happened to President Obama on Friday, when he said at a news conference that “the private sector is doing fine.” Republicans immediately pounced, and the president quickly clarified that things were not all that fine.

But look at what the president said just before that sentence: “The truth of the matter is that, as I said we’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the last two — 27 months; over 800,000 just this year alone.”

That is one of Obama’s favorite talking points — a figure plucked from Bureau of Labor Statistics data, starting with the lowest point in private sector jobs during his presidency. If you said that same “fact” day after day, you also might think the private sector is doing fine. (Obama’s larger point was relative — private sector hiring is doing better compared to state and local jobs, which keep falling.)

The line is also featured in a new TV ad the Obama campaign began airing last week, which we feature above. As a point of comparison, we also have posted a Romney ad that also uses BLS data to make claims about his record as governor.

We thought it would be an interesting — and amusing — experiment to use one campaign’s rhetoric, but inserting the other guy’s numbers. For instance, we will insert Romney’s job stats from his term of governor into Obama rhetoric, and Obama job stats in Romney rhetoric.

A caveat: We have often noted that these sorts of statistics are misleading or meaningless. A president is often at the mercy at external events — look how the troubles in the euro zone may affect the U.S. economy — and a governor has even less control over how the economy in his or her slice of country is affected by the national economic climate. So with that warning in mind, let’s take a look at what happens.

“Our businesses have created almost 4.3 million new jobs over the last 27 months.”

— Obama

“Our businesses have created 59,000 new jobs over the past 27 months.”

— Romney record translated into Obama statement

Since both Romney and Obama took office as employment was falling, their records on jobs actually look fairly similar. (See chart below.) We came up with the 59,000-job figure by taking the lowest point for private sector growth in Romney’s tenure, and then counting out 27 months.

On a percentage basis, Obama wins this comparison. He can claim a gain of 4 percent in this period — though we would not call that “fine” — while the gain in private-sector jobs under Romney in this period was 2.2 percent.

“After taking office at a time when the state was losing thousands of jobs every month, Governor Romney’s focus on fiscal responsibility helped create an environment where job growth returned to Massachusetts. Job growth increased throughout his term and the state added over 40,000 payroll jobs during his final year in office.”

— Romney campaign Web site

“After taking office at a time when the nation was losing hundreds of thousands of jobs every month, President Obama’s focus on fiscal responsibility helped create an environment where job growth returned to United States. Job growth increased throughout his term and the nation added over 1.7 million payroll jobs during his past 12 months in office.”

— Obama record translated into Romney statement

The Romney campaign tends to avoid talking about single years in Romney’s record, preferring a four-year period because that shows positive — if modest — job growth while Obama’s record (depending on whether you starting counting in January 2009 or February 2009) is either negative or barely positive. But we found this quote on the Romney Web site, and some surrogates for Romney (such as Rep. Paul Ryan) have used it as well.

This example shows why the Romney campaign tries to avoid single-year references, because it would show that jobs have been growing under Obama in the past year. The president’s final term has not ended, so we used the past 12 months as a point of comparison.

On a percentage basis, however, Romney edges Obama, showing a gain of 1.41 percent in jobs in his last 12 months, compared to 1.35 percent for Obama for the past 12 months.

“Massachusetts’ unemployment rate fell from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent during the Romney administration.”

— Romney campaign Web site (also in campaign ad)

“The U.S. unemployment rate fell from 8.3 percent to 8.2 percent during the Obama administration.”

— Obama record translated into Romney statement

The unemployment rate, of course, is the huge drag on Obama’s presidency. For this quote, we took the rate from February 2009; the rate was 7.8 percent in January, and Obama took office on the 20th, so it did not seem quite fair to tag him with the January unemployment rate.

Romney certainly wins in this comparison, though it should be noted that the Massachusetts’ rate lagged the national unemployment rate at the time. The national unemployment rate fell from 5.8 percent to 4.4 percent in this time period, so Massachusetts under Romney did not have a relatively good record.

Today, Massachusetts is doing significantly better than the national average, with an unemployment rate of 6.3 percent in April.

“When Mitt Romney was governor, Massachusetts lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs.”

— Obama campaign ad slamming Romney

“When Barack Obama was president, the United States lost 599,000 manufacturing jobs.”

— Obama record translated into Obama statement

It seems a bit absurd for Obama to blame Romney for a decline in manufacturing jobs that has afflicted the entire nation at least since 1995, with a steady reduction almost year after year. The bottom was reached in January 2010, after the Great Recession, and has inched up a bit since then.

Even so, manufacturing jobs have shrunk by 4.8 percent during Obama’s presidency.

The decline for Romney amounts to 11.3 percent. While that was higher than the national average, it was better than the record of the Massachusetts governors preceding and succeeding him.

The Pinocchio Test

Both sides are twisting employment and jobs data to create false impressions. In the reverse of Cinderella’s slipper, both campaigns often look like pumpkins when the shoe is on the other foot. The simple fact is this: both men took office in tough economic times and neither managed to compile a particularly distinguished record.

No Pinocchio rating this time — just a reminder to view all of these jobs claims with a great deal of skepticism.

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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