Obama blames Romney for spreading 'cow pie of distortion.' Is he right?

Mitt Romney had criticized the Obama administration's accumulation of US debt. Big numbers such as America’s debt may seem solid, but they’re not.

Nati Harnik/AP
President Obama speaks at a campaign grassroots event at the Iowa state fairgrounds, in Des Moines, Iowa, Thursday.

President Obama during an Iowa campaign appearance on Thursday went after Mitt Romney with a vengeance. Among other things, Mr. Obama said that a recent Romney speech criticizing the administration’s accumulation of US debt was a “cow pie of distortion.”

“I don’t know whose record he twisted the most – mine or his,” said Obama to laughter from the crowd at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

Um, OK. That’s a pretty pungent metaphor for those of us who aren’t hearing it in the context of a Midwestern livestock arena. Is the president right?

We’ll note first of all that big numbers such as America’s annual deficit and the accumulated debt seem solid, but they’re not. They’re prone to manipulation in analysis, depending on which numbers you choose, what your start and end dates are, and so forth.

In particular, Obama was responding to a Romney charge that a “prairie fire of debt” is sweeping the United States. (Do speechwriters get together in a bipartisan manner to dream up unfortunate metaphors? Dried cow patties could fuel a prairie fire, though. Just saying.)

In Iowa Thursday, Obama said that it’s true the recession has added to the debt. More people need unemployment insurance. Tax receipts are lower.

Obama kind of glided past the unpopular phrase “stimulus spending,” however, saying only that his administration’s efforts had helped keep the US auto industry alive and more teachers on the job.

“But what my opponents didn’t tell you was that federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any president in almost 60 years,” said Obama.

This assertion has become an article of faith among Democrats in recent days. It stems from an analysis by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch in The Wall Street Journal that found federal spending under Obama has risen at an annualized rate of only 1.4 percent.

That’s the slowest pace since President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“Of all the falsehoods told about President Barack Obama, the biggest whopper is the one about his reckless spending spree,” Mr. Nutting writes.

However, a new Washington Post analysis of that same ground on Friday finds methodological problems with Nutting’s analysis. (See our warning about the fluidity of apparently solid numbers, above.)

We won’t go into depth here, beyond noting that according to the Post, Nutting shaves off much of Obama’s first year in office, attributing that to locked-in budgets put in place by President Bush. He also assumes that drastic automatic cuts now looming because of a congressional budget clash will, in fact, happen.

Under Obama, federal spending as a percentage of the US gross domestic product has risen from 20.8 percent to 23.3 percent. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gives the “slowest since Ike” assertion, which was repeated Thursday by White House spokesman Jay Carney, a rating of Three Pinocchios. That means Mr. Kessler finds it mostly wrong.

“The White House might have a case that some of the rhetoric concerning Obama’s spending patterns has been overblown, but ... the picture is not as rosy as [Mr. Carney] portrayed it when accurate numbers, taken in context, are used,” writes Kessler.

Think this is the final word on the subject? We doubt it. We suggest reading the analyses listed above, and the inevitable responses and counterresponses, for yourselves.

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