Tim Pawlenty’s weak indictment of Obama

at 06:00 AM ET, 05/26/2011


(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

“Barack Obama promised that spending 800 billion dollars on a pork-filled stimulus bill would keep unemployment under 8 percent.  He promised that bailouts for well-connected businesses were a good deal for the country. He promised that a federal takeover of health care would keep costs under control. And hard as it is to believe, he even promised the deficit would be cut in half in his first term!”

— Former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty (R), May 23, 2011

 

“T-Paw,” the former Minnesota governor, threw his hat into the ring Monday for the GOP presidential nomination. The paragraph above comes from his announcement speech, and it struck us as a pretty fair summary of the Republican indictment against President Obama’s reelection.

“A litany of broken promises . . . a failed, pork-laden stimulus bill . . . soaring unemployment . . . bailouts for the undeserving . . . a government takeover of health care . . . out-of-control deficits!”

So let’s dig beneath these sentences to find out what they are based on and what truth there is to the assertions.

“Barack Obama promised that spending 800 billion dollars on a pork-filled stimulus bill would keep unemployment under 8 percent.”

This mixes up a number of complaints about Obama’s stimulus plan, but its core — that Obama “promised” his plan would keep unemployment under 8 percent — is false. Obama promised no such thing. Nor did anyone else in his administration.

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. The president-elect had articulated a goal of passing a plan that would “save or create 3 million jobs by the end of 2010.”

Page 5 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. 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.

Romer, when she left the White House last year, said that the estimate of the impact of the stimulus bill was accurate but 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,” she said.

Economic projections by their nature are uncertain. It’s absurd to claim that this is a presidential “promise,” especially when the projection was not even about the stimulus bill that ultimately passed Congress.

Congressional pork is in the eye of the beholder, but Factcheck.org previously examined a number of specific Republican claims of pork and found them wanting. And for what it is worth, the stimulus bill was not just spending on roads, teachers and the like; it also included more than $200 billion in immediate tax breaks.

  “He promised that bailouts for well-connected businesses were a good deal for the country.”

The phrase of “well-connected businesses” struck us as a little odd, suggesting that Obama was playing favorites. When we asked Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant what companies the candidate was referring to, we got simply this answer: “The big companies that got bailouts.”

Hmm, as we recall, lots of small banks also got aid. (There were a total of 928 recipients of financial assistance.)

In any case, Pawlenty appears to be arguing that the bailouts have not been a good deal. This again is in the eye of the beholder. It is worth noting that Pawlenty made this statement the day before Chrysler paid back $7.6 billion in loans and interest from the U.S. and Canadian governments and before the U.S. Treasury made $54 million from the first sale of its shares in American International Group.

Meanwhile, while the Troubled Asset Relief Program is frequently described as a $400 billion bailout, the most recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office is that TARP will end up costing the Treasury only $19 billion — and that figure keeps dropping with each new estimate.

Pawlenty suggests this is yet another broken promise, but certainly Obama can make the case to make he saved jobs at relatively little cost to the American taxpayer. The Democratic National Committee already features Pawlenty’s opposition to loans to the automakers in an ad that was timed to launch with the Chrysler announcement.

  “He promised that a federal takeover of health care would keep costs under control.”

 Pawlenty plays an interesting word shift here. The standard GOP talking point that Obama’s health care plan was a “government takeover” was labeled the 2010 “lie of the year” by our friends at PolitiFact.com. So, perhaps to avoid a Pinocchio, Pawlenty keeps the sinister-sounding “takeover” but drops “government” for the term “federal.”

Is it a distinction without a difference? Perhaps not. “Government” suggests nationalizing hospitals and doctors, while the more benign “federal” makes it more of a federal-vs.-state issue.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, for instance, has attempted to defend his passage of a health plan with an individual mandate as simply right for his state, not for the whole country. (Interestingly, Romney still calls the Obama plan “a government takeover.”)

As for keeping health-care costs under control, Pawlenty makes it sound like a broken promise. But it is really too soon to tell, as the law is only beginning to be implemented.

“And hard as it is to believe, he even promised the deficit would be cut in half in his first term!”

Finally, something that is based on a real fact. At a news conference on March 24, 2009, Obama said he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. “Both under our estimates and under the CBO estimates, the most conservative estimates out there, we drive down the deficit over the first five years of our budget,” Obama asserted. “The deficit is cut in half. And folks aren’t disputing that.”

 Of course, Obama was playing some word games there too. He was making his claim based on the 2009 deficit, which was unusually high because of the recession and stimulus spending.

The 2009 number — estimated at the time as $1.75 trillion — was four times higher than in 2008. The estimate for 2014 would still have been 25 percent higher than the deficit in 2008, which would have been the proper comparison.  (2014 is the last year of Obama’s first five-year budget.)

 So Pawlenty is nailing Obama for a Pinocchio-worthy statement that looks silly in retrospect.

 For the record, the latest CBO estimates show the 2008 deficit as $459 billion, the 2009 deficit as $1.41 trillion and $533 billion in 2014.  So, by Obama’s math, he’s still right, but it was still a strange claim to make.

Moreover, the deficit has soared under Obama, and his budget submitted earlier this year was filled with dubious claims and gimmicks. In this case, Pawlenty lands a punch.

The Pinocchio Test

Pawlenty’s collection of charges against Obama is a pretty weak brew. Many barely hold up to scrutiny. The so-called “promises” were often not promises made by Obama, while the underlying facts are often exaggerated or in dispute.

Two Pinocchios

 

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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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