Over the weekend, Mitt Romney attacked President Obama’s stewardship of the economy. He allowed that things are getting better, but said they are only improving in spite of Obama, and added a handful of claims I hadn’t heard before:

“We know that under Barack Obama, 800,000 jobs have been lost,” said Romney, a candidate in the Wisconsin presidential primary on Tuesday. “We know that under Barack Obama, 2.3 million homes have been foreclosed upon. We know that under this president, chronic unemployment is the worst it’s been in American history.”

Chronic unemployment is the worst it’s been in American history? Worse than during the Great Depression?

I asked Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul for substantiation. She pointed to a recent Congressional Budget Office report that said this:

“Compounding the problem of high unemployment, the share of unemployed people looking for work for more than six months — referred to as the long-term unemployed — topped 40 percent in December 2009 for the first time since 1948, when such data began to be collected; it has remained above that level ever since.”

So by the Romney campaign’s own accounting, this claim can only be verified as far back as 1948. Indeed, when RNC chair Reince Priebus made another version of the assertion Romney makes here, Politifact ruled it “false.” As Politifact put it: “today’s numbers aren’t anywhere near high enough to `rival’ those that prevailed for more than a decade during the Great Depression.”

Of course, it doesn’t greatly help Obama’s case that you have to reach all the way back to the Depression for chronic unemployment numbers that are worse than the ones we’ve seen on Obama’s watch. And no doubt the Romney campaign doesn’t mind getting into an argument over whether chronic unemployment during Obama’s term is the worst in American history or merely the worst since the Depression. But that doesn’t change the fact that this claim is unsubstantiated at best and false at worst. And all this becomes less meaningful when you recall that Obama inherited the worst crisis since the 1930s, which Romney wants you to forget.

Along these lines, the claim that 800,000 jobs have been lost on Obama’s watch is yet another use of that “net” jobs loss statistic: It factors in the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of jobs lost while the economy was in free fall during his first months in office, before his policies kicked in, in order to pass judgment on those policies. But if the monthly jobs numbers keep registering good news, even this number — which is largely meaningless to begin with — could conceivably edge into positive territory before the election.

Romney has gone from claiming Obama made the economy worse, to claiming that if the economy is improving, it’s despite Obama’s policies, to (most recently) claiming that Obama “failed to lead the recovery,” which means that the recovery is underway. All of which is to say that it’s not easy to pivot from making the case that an incumbent made the economy worse to acknowledging that, yes, things are improving, but things would be better still if someone else had been in charge.


Update: Post edited slightly from original.