“President Obama might forget the recession but America hasn’t.”
--text from a new RNC web video, May 11, 2012
“When a woman in Iowa shared the story of her financial struggles, he gave an answer right out of an economics textbook. He said, ‘Our productivity equals our income,’ as if the only reason people can’t pay their bills is because they’re not productive enough. Well, that’s not what’s going on. Most of us who have spent some time talking to people understand that the problem isn’t that the American people aren’t working hard enough, aren’t productive enough -– you’ve been working harder than ever. The challenge we face right now -– the challenge we’ve faced for over a decade -– is that harder work isn’t leading to higher incomes. Bigger profits haven’t led to better jobs”
--President Obama, Remarks in Seattle, May 10, 2012
When a political campaign quotes an opponent, watch out. Some important context may be missing.
The Republican National Committee, in a new web video, blasts President Obama for forgetting about the recession, based on remarks that Obama made in Seattle.
Meanwhile, Obama, in that same Seattle speech, quotes presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney as some sort of unfeeling business executive, based on remarks Romney made last year while campaigning in Iowa.
Let’s look at what Obama and Romney really said.
The RNC video actually runs a relatively long snippet from Obama’s speech, which to our mind undercuts the idea that Obama says he forgot about the recession. Here’s the full quote, with the part the RNC used in bold:
“So it was a house of cards, and it collapsed in the most destructive, worst crisis that we’ve seen since the Great Depression. And sometimes people forget the magnitude of it, you know? And you saw some of that I think in the video that was shown. Sometimes I forget. In the last six months of 2008, while we were campaigning, nearly 3 million of our neighbors lost their jobs; 800,000 lost their jobs in the month that I took office. And it was tough. But the American people proved they were tougher. So we didn’t quit. We kept going. Together we fought back.”
Hmmm, doesn’t it appear as if Obama is saying that he sometimes forgets about the “magnitude” of the collapse? He doesn’t even use the word recession, and then, in the section not used by the RNC, follows up the word “forget” with statistics about how bad things were when he took office.
When the full remarks are viewed in context, the RNC really appears to be straining to claim that Obama says he forgets about the recession. But the RNC stands by its interpretation. “Ultimately, the President is speaking in past tense about a recession that Americans are still clearly feeling in their own lives each and every day,” said RNC spokesman Joe Pounder.
Meanwhile, Obama also appears to be straining with his reference to Romney, but here the context of Romney’s comment is a bit murky because his full statement does not appear to have been recorded. The only reference we can find to the quote is an Associated Press feature from December, illustrating how awkward Romney is on the campaign trail. Buried in the story, headlined “Romney tries to come across as a man of the people,” is this exchange:
One woman recently told him that she had to endure a five-hour commute to work because her company moved out of state. How could he help keep good jobs in Iowa, she asked.
“Sometimes it’s counterintuitive,” replied Romney, a former businessman, explaining that businesses often invent new, more efficient ways to compete.
“The term is called productivity. Output per person,” he said. “Our productivity equals our income.”
Note how Obama has subtly changed the context. The woman’s reference to her five-hour commute becomes, in Obama’s telling, “the story of her financial struggles.”
Moreover, Romney’s answer appears to be in response to a question about keeping jobs in Iowa, which make it seem less cold-hearted. He’s not talking about why “people can’t pay their bills” but rather how companies can become more competitive.
How does a line buried in a newspaper article become a campaign talking point?
On Jan. 13, a former Obama economic adviser, Jared Bernstein, had highlighted Romney’s comment on his blog. Bernstein quoted the AP article and put Romney's statement in the correct context, but used it as a riff on how Romney understands the “economy of Wall St., not Main St.” Bernstein noted that as economic theory, Romney’s comment was acceptable, but that “in the decade of the 2000s, productivity grew 28% while real median household income fell 7%.”
Two days later, Obama adviser David Axelrod raised Romney’s statement in an interview on CNN on Jan. 15, building on Bernstein’s point but taking it further from its original context. Interestingly, Axelrod framed almost exactly as Obama has begun doing on his speeches:
“And we’re going to have a big debate about our visions for the future. You know, Governor Romney told some voter who was sharing her economic concerns with him about her own life the other day, and he said —you know, he gave her a whole treatise on the economy and said — finished by saying, well, you know, productivity equals income.
“Well, he misses the central issue of our time. Americans aren’t — it’s not that they’re not working hard enough. They’re working harder than they’ve ever worked, and for the last decade, their —their income has been flat, really for several decades, and it’s dropped in the last decade.”
Romney’s quote then disappears from the public discourse until Obama began mentioning it this month in his campaign stump speech.
Note how interpretation of Romney’s comment has morphed. What appears to have begun as a commentary on business efficiency has, via the Obama campaign, turned a failure to understand that American incomes have been dropping.
Interestingly, the RNC video above makes the same point about Obama’s record, citing a Bloomberg report that median incomes have fallen $4,300 during Obama’s presidency. Clearly it is an issue on which Obama is somewhat vulnerable, and so he is apparently twisting Romney’s comment in an effort to play offense.
Unfortunately, we have not been able to find a full transcript or video of Romney’s exchange, so it’s difficult to understand exactly what his point was. Neither the Romney nor the Obama campaign have a transcript, with both pointing to the AP as the only source for the statement.
But, based on the AP account, it’s clear the woman who asked the question was not talking about her “financial struggles.” She wanted to know how businesses could be enticed to stay in Iowa. (The Obama campaign argues Romney’s response in any case shows how Romney cannot relate to the problems of ordinary people.)
The Pinocchio Test
Both the RNC and President Obama have taken quotes and applied meanings that appear to have little relationship with the original context. To some extent, this is a matter of interpretation, but in both cases they have cast the remarks of their opponents in the worst possible light.
If someone can provide a full transcript of Romney's comments in Iowa, we may revisit this ruling. For now both the RNC and Obama get Two Pinocchios. (UPDATE: We got a transcript of Rommey’s remarks! Click here.)
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