(Carolyn Kaster/AP)

“Now, some of the challenges are not of our own making. We had reversed the recession, avoided a depression, got the economy moving again, created 2 million private sector jobs over the last 17 months. But over the last six months, we’ve had a run of bad luck, some things that we could not control. We had an Arab Spring that promises democracy and potentially a growth of human rights throughout the Middle East, but it also caused high gas prices that put a crimp on a lot of families just as they were trying to dig themselves out from the recession. Then we had a tsunami in Japan that disrupted supply chains and affected markets all around the world. And then in Europe, there are all kinds of challenges around the sovereign debt there, and that has made businesses hesitant and some of the effects of Europe have lapped onto our shores. And all those things have been headwinds for our economy.”

--President Obama, at a town hall meeting in Decorah, Iowa, Aug. 15, 2011

At nearly every stop during his bus tour of the Midwest, President Obama offered his listeners a variation of the quote above. His litany of “bad luck” usually served as a lead-up to an attack on congressional Republicans and their tactics during the debt ceiling debate. Depending on your point of view, the president’s words could be an explanation for the lagging economy—or an excuse.

The president has a serious political problem. It was only a year ago that the White House announced a “Recovery Summer,” designed to highlight all the jobs that officials said were being created through the stimulus legislation. Then a few months ago, a White House official said anemic job figures were just a “bump in the road.”

But the unemployment rate, after finally dipping below 9 percent earlier this year, is now back above that level. And that fact has hurt Obama in his approval ratings, with just 26 percent—a new low—approving of his handling of the economy, according to the latest Gallup poll.

So does the president’s explanation for the latest economic woes stand up to scrutiny?

The Facts

As we have noted previously, the president and his supporters have to cook the books a bit to make the job numbers sound good.

Usually, job growth is measured from the start of a presidency. That would show nearly 2.4 million jobs have been lost since Obama took office, the worst record of the modern presidency. Or one could date job growth from the official end of the recession (June 2009), but that would only show 1.2 million new jobs.

So the president speaks of “private sector jobs” in the last 17 months (February 2010, which is when the economy finally stopped shedding jobs). This gets him the highest possible figure—nearly 2.4 million, slightly higher than he said in his speech.

Even so, job growth has been anemic this year--just 862,000 new jobs through July. In Obama’s telling, that’s the result of the nation’s “bad luck.”

Most economists would credit the stimulus legislation with having had some effect in making the recession less worse, though whether it “reversed the recession” that ended six months after Obama took office is open to debate. And clearly some liberal economists argue that it was too small.

Obama cites three things holding back the U.S. economy—the Arab Spring, resulting in higher gasoline prices, the tsunami in Japan that affected manufacturing, and concerns over the sovereign debt of faltering countries in Europe. (By the Arab Spring, Obama really means the uprising in Libya, the only country facing a revolution that has real oil reserves.)

One can argue over the relative importance of these events—some reports indicate that concerns in Japan may have been overplaced—but taken together they appear to have had an impact on the economy.

“I largely agree with the President’s characterization of why the economy slowed during the first half of the year,” said Mark Zandi of Moodys.com, who recently wrote a report on the issue. “Oil prices/tsumani/euro debt crisis shaved as much as 1.5 percentage points from real GDP growth during this period. Much weaker government spending shaved another .75 percentage points.”

Zandi added that “the debt ceiling drama and the S&P downgrade have done even more serious damage in July and August.”

Morgan Stanley issued a disturbing global growth report Thursday, which helped send the stock market tumbling. It noted that that impact of these shocks illustrated how brittle the U.S. economy was, despite fiscal stimulus. A much stronger U.S. economy might have been able to shrug off such external forces.

The Pinocchio Test

We think in general presidents get too much blame (or credit) for the state of the economy. Certainly presidential actions can play a large factor, but so do external events.

Still, although Obama may be correct in his recounting of recent shocks to the economy, his narrative runs the risk of sounding like too much of an excuse, especially after he had proclaimed “recovery summer.”

In any case, he earns a Pinocchio for cherry-picking the best possible job number he could find. By the standard definition of job creation during a presidency, he is on track to be the first president to have negative growth in the modern era.

One Pinocchio

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