By Stump Connolly

Mark Twain once famously quoted Benjamin Disraeli as saying there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. Never mind that there is no evidence the British statesman ever said it, we’re talking politics here and we have to give statistics a wide berth when they come out in the heat of a presidential campaign.

A case in point is President Obama’s record on job creation. Did he bring America back from the brink of another Great Depression, or has he proven to be an inexperienced and inept steward of the American economy?

Mitt Romney would have you believe the latter. Since Obama took office on January 20, 2009, Romney contends the president has presided over a net loss of 552,000 jobs during his first term. But listen to Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter and she will tell you that America is on the rebound, adding 4.3 million private sector in just the last 27 months.

Same Numbers, Different Conclusions

How do the same Bureau of Labor statistics yield such diametrically opposite conclusions? Sometimes, it’s as simple as when you start counting. Romney reaches his dire conclusion by including American job losses of 724,000 in February, 799,000 in March, and 692,000 in April of 2009 – during Obama’s first three months in office. Cutter gets her numbers by starting the clock in March of 2010. See what I mean?

Romney also salts into his numbers the claim that unemployment is as low as it is only because millions of Americans have given up looking for work. Cutter, meanwhile, paints her rosy scenario by targeting “private sector” jobs–– excluding the 610,000 decline in state, local and federal government workers who were hit hardest by layoffs.

If the goal is to gauge the effect of Obama’s stimulus package (passed by Congress on February 13), a good place to start would be July 2009, roughly six months into Obama’s term when the stimulus money started getting disbursed.

From that point forward, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the United States has been adding jobs at an average rate of 71,000 jobs a month. That’s not the recovery Americans are looking for, but also not too shabby, especially compared to Obama’s Republican predecessor George Bush. Excluding the disastrous last year of his presidency––when America lost 3.6 million jobs––Bush’s record of job creation from 2000 to 2007 amounted to only 65,000 jobs a month.

Three Pinocchios

In Colorado last week, Romney made his most pointed attack on the stimulus package yet. “That stimulus he put in place — it didn’t help private sector jobs, it helped preserve government jobs. And the one place we should have shut back — or cut back — was on government jobs. We have 145,000 more government workers under this president. Let’s send them home and put you back to work,” Romney told his supporters.

The next day, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker Glenn Kessler called him out on his facts, giving Romney three Pinocchios for fibbing.

“There’s a lot going on in this quote,” he said. “Romney disparages President Obama’s $830 billion stimulus bill for allegedly not helping to create private sector jobs. He also dings government workers, suggesting that the president’s policies have led to a bloat of government workers — and that this is a bad thing for other workers.”

“The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that nearly 610,000 government jobs have been lost since January 2009, with much of the loss coming since 2010, as the stimulus funds have begun to run out,” Kessler reported. About 30,000 of those jobs were lost in the last few months, even as private sector jobs increased by more than 300,000.

“If we assume that Romney was actually referring to federal government jobs, not all government jobs, then the claim of a 145,000 increase since January 2009 is accurate. But much of that increase has come in areas that Romney says he wants to bolster as president, such as defense (80,000 additional jobs), veterans affairs (38,000) and homeland security (20,000). Presumably he would think such increases are a good thing — not jobs he would want to eliminate,” he concluded.

No Monopoly on Lies

But Romney is not the only ones juggling the numbers. The Obama campaign is out this week with an ad disparaging Romney’s job record as governor of Massachusetts. The TV spot claims that Massachusetts lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs when he was governor and ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation during his four-year term.

Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney’s chief political strategist, disputed the statistic on ABC last Sunday. “When Mitt Romney arrived, Massachusetts was an economic basket house,” he said. “If you throw D.C. into the mix, we were 51 out of 51.” But Fehrnstrom claimed that Romney raised the state’s standing to 30th by the time he left, and the Obama campaign was unfairly using the average of his four years, not giving Romney credit for the improvement.

The truth? Massachusetts was hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs before Romney took office, continued to lose those jobs while he was in office, and lost more after he left. Sometimes, presidents and governors don’t have as much control over the economy as you might think.

Why We Have Sunday Talk Shows

The Obama and Romney statistics slingers were on full view when Cutter and Fernstrom faced off on ABC’s Sunday morning talk show This Week. Cutter charged that Romney created only 4,000 new jobs in his 40 months in office in Massachusetts. Fernstrom countered that the unemployment rate there was only 4.7 percent and sniffed,. “I’ll bet President Obama will trade his 8.2 percent for that.

The battle over economic statistics is especially intense these days because, as moderator George Stephanopoulos noted, summer is the time when negative impressions about the candidates’ competence are “baked in” before the fall campaign. On the same panel, columnists George Will and Paul Krugman observed the sparring over job creation numbers is a relatively meaningless patina on the larger, more complicated question on where the next president should take the economy. ,

On the political front, Will sees this fall’s presidential campaign going in one of two directions: it could shape up like the 1980 presidential race where voters expressed their disappointment with an ineffectual President Jimmy Carter, or the 1984 Reagan re-election when, despite hard times, voters felt the dawning of morning in America (no statistics necessary).

Krugman, an economist known for his belief the Obama’s stimulus package didn’t go far enough, believes Romney’s economic analysis simply lacks credibility. As tepid as the recovery may be, he said, Romney isn’t offering any  concrete alternates other than the usual Republican paean to free enterprise. Until he does, voters don’t have anything to choose between.

“This is ridiculous that we are talking about these tiny, tiny missteps which happen in any organization, or indeed corporation, when the fact of the matter is the President has not been able to get very much of what he wanted done,” he said. “It’s terribly unfair that he is being judged on the failure of the economy to respond to policies that have been largely dictated by a hostile Congress.”

Unfair, yes, but all part of the game.

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