Politics is frequently compared to a sport, if not a bloodsport. So it makes sense that candidates would think it advantageous to portray themselves as being in “fighting shape.”
But in vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s case, that image is now teetering on the edge of caricature.
We suppose some supporters may find the new Time Magazine photos of Congressman Ryan in full “P90X” workout mode flattering. After all, there’s no disputing the fact that the congressman is pretty ripped. Drudge – an outlet that’s clearly sympathetic to the Romney-Ryan ticket – even chose to prominently display one of the shots of Ryan pumping iron Thursday morning.
But we suspect that many others will find the Ryan photo shoot – hmmm, how shall we put this – bordering on hilarious. There’s the backwards baseball cap. The way Ryan locks eyes with the camera as he’s doing his bicep curls. Our personal favorite is the one where he’s reaching an arm out and pouting in a pseudo-homeboyish pose.
Maybe he meant it ironically?
It’s reminiscent, on some level, of the famous photo of Michael Dukakis in the tank. Or those John Kerry windsurfing shots. Those, too, were pictures intended to show off the candidate’s tough, manly side, but they ended up unintentionally reinforcing a very different message.
The photos are especially jarring, in a way, because Ryan is generally regarded, even by many of his opponents, as a serious guy. We wonder: Did he not have any handlers around telling him that this photo shoot might not be such a good idea? Or is the congressman just so enamored with his own physical prowess that he won’t listen to naysayers?
Already, the fitness thing has gotten him into more trouble than almost any other topic. He’s had to correct his own public misstatement about his marathon time (he claimed to have run one in under 3 hours, but later admitted it was more like 4). And questions have been raised about statements he’s made about his body fat percentage (he told Politico he kept it “between 6 and 8 percent,” which, reporters have pointed out, would make him fitter than most Tour de France cyclists), and his mountain-climbing prowess.
Of course, to some extent, exercise and sports shots are a staple of campaign imagery. It’s a way of sending two messages at once: The candidate is strong and healthy, and is a “regular guy.” But sometimes, those pictures can backfire. In 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was happy to show him playing basketball – but probably wished they hadn’t let the press see him bowl.
Back in 2007, when he was running against the older John McCain, Mitt Romney devoted an entire ad to footage of himself jogging. This time around, however, he hasn’t really emphasized his sporting side as much (other than those also-questionable shots of him riding on the back of Ann Romney’s jet ski).
So Ryan has had the exercise-guru mantle to himself.
Frankly – even putting aside the questions about Ryan’s odd exaggerations – we’re not sure voters really want a candidate who seems too into his own fitness. Most Americans fall more on the sedentary side of the ledger, and while they may not want a couch-potato candidate, they also don’t want to feel bad about themselves by comparison. And they tend not to warm to people who repeatedly boast about how in-shape they are.
But, clearly, Ryan believes his fitness gives him an edge. Who knows, maybe at the debate tonight he'll challenge Vice President Joe Biden to an arm-wrestling contest? Or maybe he’ll drop down and do some one-armed pushups, like Jack Palance at the Oscars?
We'll say this: It would make it a lot more fun than the last one.
Ann Romney served as co-host of ABC’s “Good Morning America” Thursday a.m. At least, she was the focus of several segments, interviewed other guests, and cooked. Whether that makes her a co-host or a super-special normal guest is something network producers may argue about.
In any case, whatever her role, how did she handle it? She’s not as practiced at appearing on TV as is first lady Michelle Obama, after all.
As is normal in these situations, she seemed to do fine. The show staff should do its best to make her look good, after all: Ratings are at stake, as well as future guest spots if her husband wins the presidency. We say “should” because there were a few glitches. The stove in the "GMA" kitchen seemed to be a Democrat, for one thing.
IN PICTURES: Ann Romney – the softer side of Mitt
Mrs. Romney began her appearance standing in the kitchen baking her signature Welsh cakes. When host George Stephanopoulos threw the shot over to her, he asked her to talk about the background of the cookielike goods.
“They’re burning.... I’ve got a cookie emergency. The griddle’s too hot. But I’m here. I’m making Welsh cakes,” were her first words.
She recovered quickly and ran through her spiel: Her Welsh grandmother had taught her how to make them, and now she was teaching her own grandkids. Her grandfather had gone to work in Wales at age 6, while her grandmother ate the cakes every afternoon at 3 p.m.
Her other notable turn was outside in Times Square, where she helped interview a Paralympian equestrienne named Becca Hart. Ms. Hart said her horse Lord Ludger (also present) had helped her maintain health in the face of crippling illness.
Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, agreed that riding has healing powers.
“I’m right at home now. This is my most favorite place to be, with a horse,” said Romney.
OK, then – does all this help her husband’s candidacy? We’d say absolutely. There is nothing like a compelling spouse to humanize otherwise stiff and/or remote politicians. See “Michelle Obama,” above.
And there’s some evidence that Romney is a driving force behind the sudden revival of her husband’s prospects. Prior to last week’s debate, she and son Tagg intervened to push for a new and softer approach, according to a lengthy account in Politico.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t potential pitfalls in some of the things Mrs. Romney is bringing up. Take the Welsh cakes. Her grandparents are a nice story, but what about her parents? Is she avoiding talking about them? Her father was a wealthy industrialist, after all. That didn’t come up on "GMA." Nor did her days at Kingswood, a Bloomfield Hills, Mich., school so lavish it’s used as a background for auto commercials.
The horse might be more problematic. Is it a reminder of Mrs. Romney’s own love for dressage, an expensive riding sport?
Of course, it’s possible the Romney campaign has decided that the dressage thing is a positive. We’re sure they’ve polled about it, and if voters reacted badly to reminders that Mrs. Romney likes to ride, there is no way she would be appearing on morning TV next to a horse whose first name is Lord. It could be that voters see it as revealing a positive aspect to her character. She’s obviously passionate about the subject.
The Obama campaign released an ad Tuesday attacking GOP nominee Mitt Romney for promising to cut Big Bird’s federal funding. The spot engendered a fair bit of controversy, in case you haven’t heard. Was it a mistake? Or do Obama's strategists know what they're doing here?
First let’s look at the ad itself. It’s a 30-second spot that opens with shots of Bernie Madoff and other felon financiers. “Criminals. Gluttons of greed,” intones the ad’s narrator, in faux horror movie style.
“And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name,” continues the ad. It then cuts to Mitt Romney, saying “Big Bird.”
The giant feathered fellow himself then appears in a sort of montage of Sesame Street clips. The deep-voice narrator returns.
“Yellow. A menace to our economy,” he says. “Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about. It’s Sesame Street. Mitt Romney, taking on our enemies no matter where they nest.”
Why was this controversial? Big Bird didn’t like it, for one thing. Or rather his creator and copyright owner Sesame Workshop didn’t. They made it clear they hadn’t given permission to use their giant creature for political ends and asked the Obama campaign to pull the spot.
Sesame Workshop CEO Melvin Ming told the Abu Dhabi Media Summit on Wednesday that their request is “being considered.”
Second, conservatives derided the ad as small-bore. The Obama campaign isn’t responding to the larger points Romney made in last week’s debate, writes Mark Hemingway Wednesday in The Weekly Standard. Instead it’s focused on empty ephemera, according to Hemingway.
“As strategic miscalculations go, the ad is pretty devastating,” he writes.
Finally, even some Democrats weren’t enthusiastic. They think Obama is chasing a shiny distraction while letting Romney get away with what they believe are larger distortions about his economic plan.
“It’s a diversion from the much bigger reality that any conceivable Romney/Ryan budget plan is going to hit a lot of accounts that are a lot bigger and more popular than PBS,” writes liberal Ed Kilgore on the Political Animal blog at The Washington Monthly.
Well, we have a couple of points to make. The first is that campaigns know a lot more about their target audiences then they publicly discuss. If the Obama campaign is releasing a Big Bird ad, it’s probably because they have focus group data from the debate that shows voters responded negatively to that point in particular. The idea didn’t just pop into strategists’ heads. It could be part of a larger plan to try and solidify, say, the votes of stay-at-home moms. (Or dads – we’ve seen more Elmo ourselves then we care to remember.)
But right now, does that matter? It’s possible this ad might have been more effective later in the campaign. The reality is that last week’s debate appears to have been a game-changing moment. It has coincided with perhaps the largest poll swings of the entire 2012 campaign. Romney now leads in the RealClearPolitics average of major polls by 0.8 percentage points. Ten days ago Obama led by 4.3.
Throughout this election cycle, at every moment when it appeared Barack Obama’s poll lead would succumb to gravity and Romney would catch up, the Obama team has countered with a major effort, writes RealClearPolitics senior election analyst Sean Trende. In June, for example, the Obama team fought back against a newly-nominated and rising Romney by filling the airwaves with anti-Bain ads.
The current decline in Obama’s ratings is just such a moment. Yet the Obama team has already exploited Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who see themselves as victims. The campaign’s Big Bird stuff just isn’t that big, politically-speaking.
“Is there anything else it can use to push back against the natural trajectory of the race?” writes Trende. “We’ll find out, and if we get a few more polls like the Pew poll [which showed a 4-point Romney lead], I suspect that we will find out sooner rather than later.”
Did last Wednesday's presidential debate not have enough fireworks or personal attacks for you? Were you bothered, as some Democrats have been, that President Obama didn't call out Mitt Romney on some of his misleading claims (or vice versa)?
Given the "attack dog" role that most VP candidates assume, it's not surprising that vice-presidential debates are often heavy on aggression, and contain some memorable one-liners. (Think Lloyd Bentsen telling Dan Quayle in 1988, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy," or Walter Mondale telling Bob Dole in 1976 that he "has richly earned his reputation as a hatchet man.")
Beyond the entertainment value, of course, they may not mean much. In 2008, a record number of viewers tuned in to watch Sarah Palin debate Mr. Biden, wondering, primarily, whether then-Governor Palin would be in over her head.
Palin's "Can I call you Joe?" intro line was richly parodied afterward – and Tina Fey was surely thanking her for it – but in the end, Palin put in a credible performance and Biden reined in his attacks to avoid appearing like a bully, and the debate had zero effect on the polls.
That's likely to be the case again this time, although Democrats are certainly hoping that Biden can lay the groundwork for Mr. Obama to recover from his poor first debate performance – which did, in fact, seem to have made a big difference in the polls, contrary to what most pundits expected beforehand.
For starters, expect Biden to be much more prepared – and willing – to call out Congressman Ryan on any claims he takes issue with.
The debate will cover both domestic and foreign-policy issues. Look for Medicare to loom large in domestic issues; it was a centerpiece of Ryan's budget proposal, and Mr. Romney's proposal to partly privatize Medicare was based largely on Ryan's ideas. It's also a key area where Obama's team is trying to stoke fears about what the plan will mean for seniors' expenses down the road.
Given Biden's extensive foreign-policy experience, international issues should also make up a good chunk of the debate – and some viewers may be interested to see how Ryan, who has far less exposure on foreign policy, measures up.
In the end, the debate may be much more entertaining than the somewhat dry presidential debate from last week, which seemed heavier on dense numbers and dry explanation rather than zingers and one-liners.
But if you're looking for an event that could have a measurable effect on the race, you may need to wait until the following Tuesday, when Obama and Romney face off for a second time, this time taking questions from undecided voters in a town-hall-style event.
Forget the conventional wisdom that debates don't really make a difference. Last Wednesday's seems to have been a game-changer for Mitt Romney.
At least, that's what the latest poll from the Pew Research Center would have us believe.
The respected poll, which came out Monday, was the best news yet for Mr. Romney. For starters, it now puts him ahead of President Obama by four percentage points among likely voters (49 to 45 percent). In the last Pew poll, taken three weeks earlier, Mr. Obama led among likely voters by eight points.
That's a big shift. And unlike many of the seven-day-average tracking polls that have been published in recent days, all the polling was done in the days after the debate (which respondents also said, about 3 to 1, that Romney won).
The poll contained other good news for Romney. His favorability rating grew five points since September and hit 50 percent for the first time since Pew began polling voters on the question. Obama's favorability rating fell from 55 percent to 49 percent.
Romney's supporters also appear to be more engaged. A full 82 percent say they have given a lot of thought to the election – a sharp rise from September, and considerably more than Obama's supporters, of whom 67 percent say they have given a lot of thought to the election.
In addition, Romney gained ground in nearly every specific category that Pew polled on, including how voters view him as a leader, how willing he is to work with leaders of the other party, and how well he connects with ordinary Americans.
So what's the catch?
For one, some people have criticized the Pew poll for a more heavy makeup of Republican voters. In Pew's September poll, 39 percent of likely voters considered themselves Democrats, compared with 29 percent who considered themselves Republicans. In this latest October poll, that flipped, with 31 percent of likely voters considering themselves Democrats and 36 percent considering themselves Republicans.
The poll's defenders say that the shift is simply a function of voter identification being fluid: After the debate, more people might have decided to call themselves Republican, or more of those Republicans might have been likely to vote. Not adjusting for that helps capture an important dynamic in a shifting electorate.
The timing of the poll – it was conducted in the three days immediately after the debate, with most of the interviews taking place in the first part of that period – also more heavily accounts for any bounce, however short-lived, that Romney might have gotten from the debate. But this doesn't necessarily give a good idea of the longer-term trends or whether that bounce will last.
Also, while respected, Pew is just one of many polls – and some of the other polls released Monday were less favorable to Romney.
Gallup's latest tracking poll, which averages seven days of data, still put Obama five points ahead of Romney among registered voters (a distinct category from "likely" voters; among registered voters, Pew had the two candidates tied). For the three days immediately following the debate, Gallup also showed the candidates tied among registered voters.
Both the Gallup and Rasmussen tracking polls that came out Monday actually showed a slight improvement for Obama from the day before. And they seemed to indicate that Romney's bounce – while real – was fading a bit, perhaps in reaction to Friday's unexpectedly positive jobs report or perhaps as enthusiasm for the debate settled into the background for voters.
The conflicting polls can be understandably confusing for election-watchers: Which to believe? Which pollsters do it best? Should you look at "registered voter" or "likely voter" numbers? Should polls adjust for party identification?
They reflect the fact that polling is, at best, an imperfect science with a lot of disagreement about how to do it right. At this point, the polls also probably reflect voters who are still making up their minds about how they feel about the two candidates and whether the debate really changed their opinion.
At The New York Times's FiveThirtyEight blog, pollster Nate Silver gives a fair amount of validity to the Pew poll – which was significant enough that, by itself, it managed to shift the chances of Romney winning the electoral vote in his model's forecast from 21.6 percent to 25.2 percent. But, he also notes, common sense and a look at the fundamentals of the race right now don't really point to a four-point advantage for Romney.
"The evidence that Mr. Romney’s bounce is receding some is only modestly strong – as opposed to the evidence that he got a significant bounce in the first place, which is very strong," Mr. Silver writes. "Still, the order in which polls are published does not exactly match the order in which they were actually conducted – and at turning points in the race, these details can make a difference."
So whom to believe? At this point, voters may need to wait a few more days to see how the polling settles out – or until the next debate, when there could be yet another bounce for one of the candidates.
The vice-presidential debate is Thursday; the next presidential debate – town-hall style – is Oct. 16. Stay tuned.
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography – the art of standing out
How much money would Washington save if it stopped subsidizing Big Bird?
This question arises, of course, because during the presidential debate that’s what Mitt Romney said he’d do if elected president. Asked what things he’d cut from the federal budget to help curb deficits, Mr. Romney mentioned the tax money that flows into the Public Broadcasting System. Then he got specific with moderator Jim Lehrer, a PBS star.
“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too,” he said to Mr. Lehrer. “But I’m not going to ... borrow money from China to pay for it.”
OK, then. We’ll focus first on Big Bird, then on public TV and radio in general, and their relationship to deficit spending.
It should come as no surprise that cutting Big Bird off the US dole would save very little money, relatively speaking. In part that’s because Sesame Workshop, the company that produces “Sesame Street,” gets most of its money from sources other than Uncle Sam.
Let’s look at the numbers. According to the latest Internal Revenue Service Form 990 financial disclosure that Sesame Workshop has made public, its total revenue for 2009 was about $130 million. Of that, about $7.9 million came directly from government grants. So, a rounding error in a Pentagon checkbook.
Now, Big Bird gets program fees from stations, too. Sesame Workshop lists $27 million in content distribution revenue. Some of that comes from federal dollars funneled to local PBS entities, though the Form 990 doesn’t break that out.
Let’s figure that 8 percent of Sesame Workshop’s total budget comes from the government. That’s the figure the company has quoted in recent media reports. Given a $130 million overall budget, that comes in at about $10.4 million.
Given that this year’s federal deficit is $1.1 trillion, Big Bird is nothing but speck of dust on a mote on a dandelion that Horton the Elephant is trying to save from being boiled in oil.
Of course, “Sesame Street” is only one program. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting – funding partner of PBS and National Public Radio – got about $445 million in 2012 from the federal budget. Axing that, as Romney promises to do, would save a bit more.
Still, even $445 million wouldn’t pay for a computer system on one of the new ships Romney wants to add to the Navy. So why bother to go after it?
Because – you knew there was going to be a “because” – it’s not just about the absolute dollar value of the money. Conservatives have long decried federal subsidies to public broadcasting because they consider it blatant waste. Today’s broadcasting environment doesn’t lack for high-quality choices, as it did in the 1960s when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed. Plus, much public TV and radio could survive just fine on its own, according to this view.
We’ll go back to Sesame Workshop to illustrate this point. According to a pie chart of the group’s financials, 35 percent of the group’s cash comes from corporate, foundation, and government support. As we’ve seen, the “government” part of that isn’t very big.
Another 33 percent comes from product licensing. That’s all the Elmo dolls and so forth that clutter kids’ bedrooms around America. A final 32 percent comes from distribution fees and royalties.
So, Big Bird would do just fine if he has to leave Washington’s nest. He’d get royalties from the movie “Elmopalooza,” plus grants from corporate and foundation partners.
Also, did you know the president of Sesame Workshop makes more than the president of the United States? We noticed that while combing through the 209 Form 990.
That year, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell got $684,144 in reportable compensation from his job. The salary of the US president is fixed by law at $400,000, though the job does come with use of a house, Camp David, and Air Force One.
Focusing on the Middle East, Mr. Romney accused the Obama administration of concealing for days the fact that terrorists were behind the attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Also, Mr. Obama has put “daylight” between the United States and Israel, Romney said, and failed to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weapons capability.
Under Obama, the US has “led from behind,” Romney said. Citing the example of VMI grad George Marshall, the great World War II Army chief of staff and Truman-era secretary of State, Romney vowed that as president he would use US power to shape world events, instead of simply reacting to them.
“Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership,” Romney said.
Romney supporters saw the speech as building on the success of his crisp performance in the presidential debate last week. He “looked the part of commander in chief,” wrote conservative Jennifer Rubin in her Right Turn blog at The Washington Post.
This is one of the political hurdles that a candidate must overcome to topple an incumbent chief executive, of course. If voters are leery about a candidate's ability to handle late-night phone calls on foreign crises, they may hesitate to displace a tested administration.
Romney tried to do this with a light hand. There were no accusations that Obama had “sympathized” with rioters in the Middle East – a charge the GOP nominee has made in the past.
Instead, his tone seemed to reflect a core strategy of the Romney approach: Voters who still like Obama must be persuaded that it’s still OK to vote against him.
Romney “replaced righteous anger with sober disappointment and sought to give persuadable voters permission to feel the same way about the president’s foreign policy failures,” wrote BuzzFeed political writer McKay Coppins.
But some critics said that the foreign-policy themes that Romney enunciated relied heavily on repeated yet vague assertions that he’ll be a better leader than Obama. Also, they said, his actual policies hew fairly closely to existing US positions.
As to US relations with Israel, it does seem clear that a Romney administration would take a different tack, in that Romney vows to align the US more closely with Israeli interests. “The world must never see any daylight between our two nations,” he said.
On Syria, however, Romney said he’d work with allies to make sure rebels who “share our values” get the arms they need. That’s pretty much what’s going on now, though Romney might urge the transfer of more powerful weapons.
In Afghanistan, Romney hinted that Obama had pulled out troops too fast, but added, ”I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.”
That’s the current Afghanistan timetable.
As for Iran, Romney has said that it should not get nuclear weapons capability. The Obama administration has been vaguer about exactly what line Iran should not cross. But Romney did not rattle sabers here, saying only that he’d impose new sanctions on Iran and tighten ones already in place.
Those are the tools the current administration says it will rely on for the time being to try to curb Tehran.
It’s in the means where they should differ. “And – in op-ed after op-ed, in speech after speech – Romney either elides the means altogether, mentions means that the Obama administration is already using, or just says the word ‘resolve’ a lot,” Mr. Drezner writes. “That’s insufficient.”
In fact, Romney has changed positions on a number of foreign issues, Madeleine Albright, Clinton-era secretary of State, said in a conference call with reporters. He’s switched back and forth as to whether the US intervention in Libya is a good thing, for instance.
“When you get to the specifics, you kind of don’t get the sense that he knows exactly what tools to use and how to operate within an international setting and what the role of the United States is in the 21st century,” said Ms. Albright.
The audience, for one. (Particularly the members of the live audience in George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, since they didn’t have to suffer from slow or frozen Internet connections due to servers overloaded by viewer demand.) Messrs. Stewart and O’Reilly delivered a pretty good clash of ideologies, in which each addressed the other’s points, spiced up with humor and leavened by the fact that the two men appear to be friends.
That’s more than you could say about last week’s presidential debate.
As for Saturday night, take the issue of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments about the percentage of Americans who consider themselves victims entitled to government support. O’Reilly defended Mr. Romney’s general point. The Fox host acknowledged that the Americans who belong to what he called the “entitlement society” add up to far less than 47 percent of the nation – but, he said, it’s a growing problem that’s driving big government and much of the deficit.
“About 20 percent of us are slackers, and it’s a growing industry,” O’Reilly said.
Stewart blew his top, or pretended to. He noted that the United States was founded by immigrants who came to a country already settled by natives and decided they wanted it for themselves.
“We are an entitlement nation,” Stewart said. “Have you ever seen 'Oprah’s Favorite Things' episode? We are a people that wants free things.”
The issue for 2012, Stewart said, was whether President Obama has fundamentally changed citizens’ relationship to the government in this regard. O’Reilly responded that Mr. Obama had, given the increase in food stamps and other social spending, including a doubling of government disability payments.
“The mind-set is, if I can gin the system, I’ll do it because it’s easy,” O’Reilly said.
Stewart said Obama hadn’t changed that relationship. The bad economy drove up food-stamp spending, he said. Then he pointed out that O’Reilly’s own father claimed disability, albeit from a private firm.
“If you take advantage of a tax break, you’re a smart businessman. If you take advantage of something you need to not be hungry, you’re a moocher,” Stewart said.
On the issue of the deficit, Stewart argued that Republicans are exaggerating the short-term threat to the US economy, without proposing any real solutions.
Of course, ending federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, as Romney proposed during last week’s debate, saves a pittance. That’s what Stewart pointed out. But O’Reilly got him in response, asserting that Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on wealthy individuals by itself doesn’t do much to close the deficit, either.
“It doesn’t matter what [President] Bush did. The job of the president now is to get the deficit under control, and you got to cut stuff,” O’Reilly said.
As for the funny bits, O’Reilly mostly served as the amused straight man to the professional comedian. Thus the 6-foot, 4-inch Fox News personality watched as the comedian, short enough to be called “Hobbit-like” by moderator E.D. Hill, rose on a motorized platform to surpass his opponent’s height.
“I can see how Obama did badly in the debate. The air is really rough up here,” Stewart said at one point.
Prodded by the moderator as to whether US politics should feature more cross-partisan dialogue, Stewart got up and sat in O’Reilly’s lap.
“What would you like for Christmas, little boy?” O’Reilly responded, before telling Stewart to vamoose.
(See, that’s extra-humorous because Stewart is Jewish, and they’d already argued as to whether there’s a war on Christmas in America.)
As to which participant may have bested the other, we’ll take the safe route and say they both won, particularly because both were getting paid, which is really the point, right?
And in that regard, O’Reilly may have won a little more. He’s got a new book out, “Killing Kennedy,” a narrative of the events surrounding JFK’s assassination. So the debate has given him a burst of publicity at a time that’s good for his pocketbook.
As O’Reilly said during the debate, “You gotta let the free market run away a little bit. You gotta unleash the machine.”
“Right,” riposted Stewart. “Because what could go wrong?”
IN PICTURES: Campaign photography – the art of standing out
Washington’s red ink was a big topic in the presidential debate on Wednesday night. That’s unsurprising – it’s an important issue, and the federal government is spending a lot more than it's taking in. But President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney kept throwing numbers at each other like they were playing arithmetical dodge ball. For those without accounting skills it was hard to keep up.
So as part of our effort to explain some of the discussion we’ll address this point: Mitt Romney said the deficit has doubled under President Obama. Is that right?
Well, let’s look at the numbers. When President Obama took office in 2009 the deficit was already running at close to a record-setting pace. At the end of that fiscal year, it was $1.4 trillion. That’s “trillion” with a “T”. Ouch.
Fiscal 2012 ended on Sept. 30. The final figures aren’t yet in, but at the moment the Congressional Budget Office projects the deficit will be ... (drum roll) $1.1 trillion. So smaller. Not doubled at all.
In 2010 and 2011 the deficit was a bit higher, at around $1.3 trillion each year. That’s still below the 2009 figure, certainly not double. Measured as a share of the Gross National Product, which is how economists prefer to do it, the deficit has declined during Obama’s term in office. We won’t give you the percentages because they’re just more numbers and we’re not economists ourselves.
So what did Romney say on Wednesday, exactly? He asserted this: “The president said he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it. Trillion-dollar deficits for the last four years.”
As we’ve seen, the middle part of that isn’t true. The deficit hasn’t doubled. But the trillion-dollar-four-years part is true. So is the first part of Romney’s charge. During Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009, the president pledged to halve the deficit during his first term. Looking at the above numbers you can see that he hasn’t.
It’s possible that on Wednesday night Romney misspoke or misunderstood something in his briefing book. His advisers may have wanted him to say that the US debt, not the deficit, had increased sharply during Obama’s term.
The deficit is the nation’s annual shortfall. The debt is the shortfalls of all years added together and rolled up in a big pile of red numbers that at this point is reaching toward the sky.
On George W. Bush’s last day in office the US public debt was $10.626 trillion. On Oct. 5, 2012 (you can see the debt to the penny at the Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt website) the total debt outstanding was about $16.161 trillion.
So as you see, the debt has gone up a lot during Obama’s time in office. About 52 percent, if you run the numbers. That’s still not doubled, though.
Of course, in this instance the numbers are simply continuing an upwards trend that began under President Bush. The debt went up about $4.9 trillion during Bush’s time in office.
Obama has been quick to blame his predecessor (plus the bad economy) for much of the nation’s debt problem. During Wednesday’s debate he said Bush used credit to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the Medicare prescription drug program.
This analysis of the roots of the deficit problem is itself only partly true, as we said when we looked at it in depth in a previous post.
Just a month before the election, did the White House “cook the books” to get the unemployment rate down to 7.8 percent in September?
“Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers,” said the missive from his Twitter account after the latest jobs report came out Friday from the Labor Department.
Mr. Welch’s tweet has set off a firestorm of activity in the virtual realm. Conspiracy theorists jumped on board as if the Obama administration had hidden reports of UFOs landing in the Rose Garden.
And Rep. Allen West (R) of Florida, a favorite of the tea party, tweeted, “I agree with former GE CEO Jack Welch, Chicago style politics is at work here….”
Democrats quickly tweeted right back.
“love ya jack but you’ve lost your mind,” wrote Austan Goolsbee on Twitter.
Welch is best known for making GE into a corporate dynamo. When he retired, he also became known for collecting a pension that many thought was excessive. In addition to collecting $933 million, he got an annual pension of $10.5 million and a chauffeur and use of the GE corporate jet for life. As if that were not enough, GE also agreed to pay his dry cleaning bills.
In Welch’s case, Labor Secretary Solis appeared on CNBC to refute allegations that any massaging of the data had occurred.
“You know I am insulted when I hear that because we have a very professional civil service organization where you have top economists working" at the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), she said. “It is really ludicrous to hear that kind of statement.”
When it reports the unemployment data each month, the Labor Department looks at two different surveys. The first survey asks 141,000 businesses and government agencies if they have hired anyone in the past month. This is called the establishment survey, and it showed that only 114,000 people had been hired by businesses in September, compared with an average of about 140,000 per month so far this year.
At the same time, the BLS contracts out to the Department of Census to call 60,000 people every month to ask if their employment situation has changed. This household survey determines the unemployment rate.
Using the household survey, the BLS estimated that last month 873,000 people had found work. After estimating the number of people who got fired or laid off, the bureau, using that survey, said that the number of unemployed people dropped by approximately 456,000.
It is not unusual for the number to vary greatly month to month, notes economist Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisers in Holland, Pa. For example, in April the BLS reported that 342,000 fewer people had found jobs and in May it reported that 642,000 had found work.
“The unemployment rate will probably go back to 7.9 percent or maybe 8 percent next month,” he says.
This is not the first time aspersions have been cast on the Bureau of Labor Statistics, according to Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. In 1971, President Richard Nixon was angered when the BLS attributed a drop in the unemployment rate from 6.2 percent to 5.6 percent in a month to a statistical fluke, says the EPI website.
Timothy Noah, writing in Slate, published excerpts from White House tape recordings in which Nixon and an adviser, Charles Colson, decide that a Jewish cabal at BLS is trying to undermine the president's economic policy. “Well, listen, they are all Jews over there?” he asks Colson. Then, in an official act of anti-Semitism, Nixon tells Colson, “All right, I want a look at any sensitive areas around where Jews are involved, Bob. See, the Jews are all through the government, and we have got to get in those areas. We've got to get a man in charge who is not Jewish to control the Jewish … do you understand?”