Romney’s Recession Riddle

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The political media is having fun with a new Mitt Romney flip-flop, namely that the former Massachusetts governor first said, last week, that Barack Obama’s policies made the great recession worse, then denied having saying said that*, and then repeated the original charge in New Hampshire on Sunday, saying that “the recession is deeper because of our President.”

But this is a case where the meta-story of Romney’s reversals should not be the angle. The real point is that Romney’s claim has no credible basis, at least not beyond the world of partisan economists and commentators. As the Times reminds us today, we haven’t even been in a recession for more than two years now. Even if you grant that Romney was using the word recession in a more colloquial sense, meaning something akin to “slump,” there’s no credible economic data showing that Obama has inflamed our economic problems.

Consider the new White House Council of Economic Advisors quarterly report on the stimulus. It affirms prior estimates that the spending package created well over two million jobs. Sure, that wasn’t enough to make up for wider job losses. And sure, conservatives like those at the Weekly Standard can chortle about how each job “cost” $278,000 to create. But arguments that the stimulus wasn’t worth the expense are different from an argument that Obama’s policies have made our problems worse. (Nor do conservatives tend not to mention that the stimulus included about $160 billion in tax cuts, by the way.)

I suppose Romney might retort that even bigger tax cuts would have juiced the economy and dramatically dropped unemployment. Again, that’s not a mainstream economic view. It’s also too facile a basis for saying that Obama took an epic crisis and somehow made it worse. So the problem isn’t that Romney flip-flopped. It’s that he fib-dropped.

*The Romney camp says Romney only denied saying Obama made things worse in the context of what he understood to be a question about the stock market, which (inconveniently for his larger argument) is up around than 50% since Obama took office. But that spin is hogwash, as a full transcript of the exchange shows.