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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.