David Axelrod, a longtime political adviser to President Obama, held a telephone news conference with reporters last week to attack GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney for remarks he made during a candidates debate held by The Washington Post and Bloomberg News (see full transcript below). In particular, he faulted Romney for appearing to oppose an extension of a payroll tax cut, as proposed in Obama’s new jobs plan. The former Massachusetts governor instead said he was interested in trying “to fundamentally restructure America’s foundation economically,” not “little Band-Aids.”

Axelrod blasted Romney for, in his campaign economic plan, touting the elimination of taxes on capital gains and dividends for people who earn less than $200,000. During the debate, Romney said he had targeted the tax cut because “if I’m going to use precious dollars to reduce taxes, I want to focus it on where the people are hurting the most, and that’s the middle class.”

Clearly, there’s a general-election theme emerging there, and Democrats appeared eager to cast Romney as actually kowtowing to the wealthy.

But there are moments when Axelrod’s spin got ahead of the facts. Let’s take a look at some of his statements.

“You heard Governor Romney essentially oppose the extension of the payroll tax cut that the president is fighting for in Congress as part of the American Jobs Act that would be a $1,500 tax cut for 160 million working Americans or families.”

This is inaccurate. Obama wants workers to pay 3.1 percent of wages up to $106,800 in Social Security payroll taxes, down from 4.2 percent this year and 6.2 percent in a typical year. According to a Treasury Department analysis, when the initial payroll tax cut was instituted, 159 million Americans would get some kind of payroll tax cut.

But not all of those people would receive $1,500, as Axelrod says. Someone making $50,000 — which is close to the median household income — would get that amount. But those who earn less than that would receive less.

Obama’s tax-cut “is the essential ingredient to prevent the double-dip recession. That is the testament that Mark Zandi gave yesterday — who was Senator McCain’s economist in the last election.”

This is also inaccurate. Zandi, a registered Democrat, was never McCain’s economist. The Obama campaign points to a Wall Street Journal article that included Zandi on a list of 32 people who provided economic advice to the McCain campaign. But calling him “McCain’s economist” greatly inflates his role, particularly when Zandi is known for giving advice to Republicans and Democrats, including the Obama White House.

In an e-mail, Zandi confirmed that he is a registered Democrat and said the Obama campaign was mischaracterizing his role for McCain.

“I was an economic advisor to the McCain campaign for about 2 years, but I would not characterize myself as McCain’s economist. Doug [Holtz-Eakin] was his principal advisor. My principal role was to monitor current economic and financial conditions. I also provided some policy advice, particularly with regard to the housing market and the financial system.

“To reiterate what I said to the WSJ back in July 2007, I have long provided economic and policy advice to both Republican and Democratic policymakers.”

The Obama campaign likes to pretend that Zandi had a more important role for McCain because it sounds like a Republican is endorsing Obama’s policies. But that’s not the case.

“And certainly when you call a $1,500 tax cut in the midst of a very difficult time in our economy a Band-Aid, a little Band-Aid and dismiss it — then you offer an economic plan that has its great benefit to the middle class, a $50 tax cut.”

The Obama campaign comes up with the $50 figure by taking the Census Bureau definition of median income — $49,445 — and applying it to a chart produced by the Tax Policy Center, which shows that people who earn $40,000 to $50,000 would receive an average tax cut of $54 from the elimination of taxes on capital gains, dividends and interest.

We’ve spent many days going back and forth with the Obama campaign on this, but for complicated reasons, the income figures for the Census Bureau and the Tax Policy Center are not quite the same. To compare apples to apples, you would need to use the next category in the Tax Policy Institute chart — $50,000 to $75,000 — because the roughly equivalent median income figure is in the low- to mid-$50,000s.

Okay, that gets Romney an average tax cut of $167. That’s still not a lot of money, because as former House speaker Newt Gingrich correctly noted during the debate, the people who really make money on capital gains earn far more than $200,000.

Still, the Tax Policy Center chart touted by the Obama campaign does show that Romney’s proposal would not be a bad deal for the elderly who get most of their income from capital appreciation. Their average tax cut would be three times greater than it would for the rest of the tax-paying population.

It’s important to note that Obama’s payroll tax holiday, in theory, would expire in 2013, while the president’s campaign is comparing that temporary idea to a permanent change that Romney wants to make. That was the point the Republican was trying to make. For the record, here’s what he said in the debate, when asked whether he supports extending the payroll tax cut:

“No one likes to see tax increases, but look, the — the stimulus bills the president comes out with that are supposedly going to create jobs, we’ve now seen this played in the theater several times. And what we’re seeing hasn’t worked. The American people know that when he — when he went into office and borrowed $800 billion for a massive jobs stimulus program, that they didn’t see the jobs. Some of those green jobs we were supposed to get, that’s money down the drain. The right course for America is not to keep spending money on stimulus bills, but instead to make permanent changes to the tax code.

“Look, when you give — as the president’s bill does, if you give a temporary change to the payroll tax and you say, we’re going to extend this for a year or two, employers don’t hire people for a year or two. They make an investment in a person that goes over a long period of time. And so if you want to get this economy going again, you have to have people who understand how employers think, what it takes to create jobs. And what it takes to create jobs is more than just a temporary shift in a tax stimulus. It needs instead fundamental restructuring of our economy to make sure that we are the most attractive place in the world for investment, for innovation, for growth and for hiring, and we can do that again.

“Look, I don’t like little Band- Aids. I want to fundamentally restructure America’s foundation economically.”

We will leave it to readers to decide whether Romney is being quoted correctly by the Obama campaign.

“But when you look at his program, what you find is that the tax benefits have over a trillion dollars of tax cuts in there but the tax benefits largely accrue to corporations and to upper-income Americans. And when you get down to the middle class, as Speaker Gingrich pointed out, most don’t take advantage of capital gains and some of the other investment benefits that Governor Romney has in there, it means a $50 tax cut for the typical family.”

This is a classic apples-to-oranges comparison. The claim of $1 trillion in tax cuts — virtually all of which stems from a corporate tax cut — comes from 10-year estimates. Axelrod takes that figure and compares it with a one-year tax-cut figure.

Besides the capital-gains tax cut, Romney’s plan actually proposes few tax cuts for individuals, except for the standard GOP pledge to eliminate the estate tax, although he speaks vaguely of wanting to overhaul the tax code to make it “flatter” and “fairer.”

Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt took issue with this analysis. “Middle-class families need immediate relief, but Mitt Romney belittled extending the payroll tax cut which would provide the typical middle-class family with $1,500 per year,” he said. “Instead, Governor Romney’s plan would extend tax breaks for large corporations and the wealthiest, while giving the typical middle-class family only $54 per year. This is a question of priorities, and Romney’s plan would help large corporations and the wealthiest rather than restore economic security for the middle class.”

The Pinocchio Test

Axelrod is a political operative, not a policy analyst, so one would expect his language to be pushing the envelope. The general thrust of his argument — that average Americans would not benefit much from Romney’s elimination of taxes on capital gains — is largely correct. But then he gets in trouble with some of the specific facts and figures used to bolster his case.

And the reference to Zandi being “McCain’s economist” is truly phony. That talking point should be dropped from the Obama’s political arsenal.

One Pinocchio

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Read a transcript of the Axelrod call

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