The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column takes Mitt Romney to task for claiming that “three years ago, a newly elected President Obama told America that if Congress approved his plan to borrow nearly a trillion dollars, he would hold unemployment below 8 percent.” After all, it wasn’t President Obama who said this, but his economic advisers, and they didn’t even know that we actually needed roughly a zillion times more stimulus! Here’s the Post:
Far from being anything that Obama said, the Romney campaign acknowledges that this 8 percent figure comes from a staff-written projection issued Jan. 9, 2009 — before Obama had taken the oath of office.
…Romer, after she left the White House in 2010, said that the estimate of the impact of the stimulus bill was accurate but that 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,” Romer said.
The bottom line? The Bernstein-Romer report “was not an official government assessment or even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress.” Three Pinocchios!
Romney’s statement probably wouldn’t make it through a decent magazine fact checking without being reworded. But the same essential point could be made without introducing errors: Even if Obama himself didn’t tell America that an economic stimulus package would reduce unemployment to 8 percent, top administrations officials projected that figure in a report that was released to the public.
The Post is correct that Romney gets at least one detail wrong: Obama himself did not explicitly make the claim. But after he’d won the election, Obama’s top advisers projected, in an official capacity, that an economic stimulus of almost exactly the size of the one that eventually passed would reduce unemployment to 8 percent before the end of 2011.
The report in question was released on January 9, 2009, just a few days before President Obama was sworn into office, when both he and his team were already busily working on their plans for the country. The very first page lists Romer as the “Chairman - Nominee - Designate” of the Council of Economic Advisers, the the top job on president’s team of official economic counselors; Bernstein is listed as representing the “Office of the Vice President elect.” There’s no question, in other words, that this was a report produced by representatives of an incoming administration working in an official capacity.
The report’s projections, meanwhile, were based on a $775 billion stimulus plan, and the opening line refers to key employment goals “enunciated by the President-Elect concerning the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.” It would be absurd to suggest that the plan considered in the Romer-Berstein report was anything other than an early version of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, otherwise known as the economic stimulus package, that would pass just a few weeks later.
Does it matter that Romer, along with other defenders, have since attempted to excuse their projections by arguing that they didn't know the true depth of the economic collapse? Not really. It shouldn't even provide much comfort to diehard stimulus backers, as it reveals the weakness of the macroeconomic forecasting that stimulus plans rely on.
Sure, Romney is wrong in the particulars of his criticism of how the president sold the stimulus. But he’s wrong in all the ways that don’t matter, and right in the way that does.
That said, Romney is far less of a stimulus critic that he appears to want potential voters to believe. In fact, as I noted in my March feature story on Romney, he seems to be fine with economic stimulus just as long as it’s designed to his specifications. In his 2010 book, No Apology, Romney has no apparent complaints about the $152 billion stimulus plan passed in 2008 by President Bush; he also says that following that plan, “another stimulus was called for.” He even has some nice things to say about the stimulus legislation passed by President Obama, writing that “the stimulus that was passed in early 2009 will accelerate the timing of the start of the recovery”—just not as much as it would have if it had been designed differently.
The line Romney takes on the stimulus in his book barely counts as a complaint. Yes, the initial stimulus projections made by incoming Obama administration economic staffers turned out to be bunk. But it's not clear what Romney would have done differently, except perhaps tweak the tax and spend balance and some of the implementation details. But as campaign trail attack lines go, "I would have implemented the stimulus somewhat differently!" isn't much of a rallying cry.
Update: The Examiner's Philip Klein reminds me via Twitter that President Obama did say in a speech pushing passage of his recovery plan that "if nothing is done...unemployment will reach double digits."