Mitt Romney’s campaign blasted President Obama as a hypocrite Monday for calling for more funding for teachers, police officers and firefighters, after having acknowledged that the government has shed jobs on his watch. Obama, Romney charged, is urging public-sector hiring one minute, and bragging about reducing government the next. But Romney’s attack relies on a cherry-picked remark Obama made while arguing Congress should help hire more public workers.
A press release by Romney juxtaposes the following two quotes, with an accompanying video:
Quote 1: “The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government — oftentimes, cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government … ” (President Barack Obama, Press Conference, Washington, DC, 6/8/12)
Quote 2: “The only time government employment has gone down during a recession has been under me. So I make that point — I make that point just so you don’t buy into this whole bloated government argument that you hear.” (President Barack Obama, Remarks, Albany, NY, 5/8/12)
The idea, wrote Romney spokeswoman Ryan Williams in the press release, is that Obama “said the real weakness in the economy was state and local government employment — yet a month earlier, he touted the fact that government employment had fallen on his watch.”
The problem: Obama was not “touting” anything. What he was arguing, as he has for months as part of a legislative push to pass a $447 billion jobs bill, was that public-sector layoffs were hurting the economy, and that opposing action on the issue out of fears of “big government” was misguided. Obama also rebuked Congress for not freeing up cash to hire more teachers as part of the same statement. Here’s a fuller passage from his Albany speech with the two sentences Romney picked out highlighted.
OBAMA: Just about every time we put these policies up for a vote, the Republicans in Congress got together and they said no. They said no to putting hundreds of thousands of construction workers back on the job repairing our roads and our bridges and our schools and our transit systems. No to a new tax cut for businesses that hire new workers. No to putting more teachers back in our classrooms, more cops back on the beat, more firefighters back to work. And this is at a time when we know one of the biggest drags on our economy has been layoffs by state and local governments — that’s true all across the country.
Government employment rose under President Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush. So each time there was a recession with a Republican President, compensated — we compensated by making sure that government didn’t see a drastic reduction in employment. (“Where the federal government stepped up to prevent states and municipalities from laying off teachers and other government workers in previous recessions, it’s fallen on its face under Obama,” TPM’s Brian Beutler reported last month.)
The only time government employment has gone down during a recession has been under me. So I make that point just so you don’t buy into this whole bloated government argument that you hear. And frankly, if Congress had said yes to helping states put teachers back to work and put the economy before our politics, then tens of thousands more teachers in New York would have a job right now. That is a fact. And that would mean not only a lower unemployment rate, but also more customers for business.
Obama is using the stat plucked by the Romney campaign to argue that he should get the same help “making sure that government didn’t see a drastic reduction in employment” that previous presidents have had during recessions.
It’s an especially odd fact for Romney to highlight considering that the Republican nominee often accuses Obama of having grown government, to the point that Romney has sometimes warned the the very concept of free enterprise itself is in danger of disappearing if Obama wins a second term.
Update: The Obama campaign responded to the Romney release with a statement from spokeswoman Lis Smith noting the portions of the Albany speech that were left out:
“Not surprisingly, Mitt Romney’s campaign is relying on distortions and dishonesty to distract from his out-of-touch comments that we don’t need more teachers, firefighters, and police officers. President Obama’s record is clear: he has cut excessive bureaucracy, while continuing to make critical investments that will help keep our streets safe and educate our kids. In Massachusetts, Mitt Romney had a very different approach. He grew the size of the government while laying off teachers and first responders, helping to drive the state down to 47th out of 50 in job creation. Romney’s promises to eliminate middle class jobs wouldn’t grow the economy and, in fact, would make it worse. Romney Economics didn’t work in Massachusetts and it won’t work now.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.