Obama’s recession? Obama killed Bin Laden? Don’t give presidents all the credit or blame.

Romney and Obama Pretend Everything Changed When Obama Took Office. Bull.

Romney and Obama Pretend Everything Changed When Obama Took Office. Bull.

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May 2 2012 12:31 PM

Inaugural Charade

Romney and Obama pretend everything changed when Obama took office. Bull.

Obama being sworn in.
How much changed when President Obama was sworn in? Not as much as he or Mitt Romney would have you believe.

Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

According to Mitt Romney, everything that’s going wrong in this country started when Barack Obama took office. Women lost their jobs. Families lost their homes. The nation’s debt soared.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to Barack Obama, everything that’s going well started when he took office. The government rescued the auto industry. Energy production rose. The war against Osama Bin Laden turned in our favor.

Each candidate rejects the other’s story. Romney says the things that are going well started going well before Jan. 20, 2009. Obama says the things that are going badly went bad before Jan. 20, 2009. Both of these rebuttals are correct, which means both men are exaggerating what President Obama changed. This is what politicians do: They heap blame on incumbents, promise to change the world, and then, once elected, pretend to have done so. Don’t believe them. It’s wildly implausible that the nation’s progress or decline began on Inauguration Day. In fact, it’s false. And the candidates, in their rebuttals, show that they know it.


Obama tells a thrilling tale of slaying terrorists and rescuing American foreign policy. Addressing Americans from Afghanistan last night, he bragged: “Over the last three years, the tide has turned. We broke the Taliban’s momentum. We’ve built strong Afghan security forces. We devastated al-Qaida’s leadership, taking out over 20 of their top 30 leaders. And one year ago, from a base here in Afghanistan, our troops launched the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.”  An Obama campaign video about the Bin Laden raid focuses not on the intelligence officers who tracked down Bin Laden, or on the SEALs who killed him, but on Obama’s decision to give the final order.

Romney says the real story goes back further: “That mission was the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work and sacrifice by our men and women in the military and intelligence communities.” He’s right. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, says credit must be shared with “the many intelligence professionals who pieced together the clues that led to Bin Laden’s hideout.” Brennan attributes al-Qaida’s decline to “intense efforts over more than a decade, across two administrations.” The CIA gathered leads for years before finding the one that led to Bin Laden. The first directive to accelerate drone strikes on al-Qaida leaders came from President George W. Bush, and the sharp upturn in strikes began in 2008, with 19 al-Qaida operatives among the 286 fatalities.

On the economy, however, Romney prefers amnesia. He starts counting job losses and foreclosures on the day Obama was sworn in. “Since Barack Obama became president, over 800,000 Americans have lost their jobs,” and “2.8 million homes have been foreclosed on,” Romney declared a month ago. Obama replies that the recession began earlier, and he’s right. According to Factcheck.org:

The unemployment rate began its rise before Obama took office, surged nearly three percentage points—hitting 7.8 percent at the time Obama took office. The rate crested under Obama at 10 percent in October 2009. Since the peak, the rate has come down—steadily but slowly—and stood at 8.2 percent for March. …


The number of households that received a foreclosure notice grew from 1.3 million to 2.3 million during Bush’s last year in office, according to RealtyTrac, a company that monitors foreclosures across the country. The number continued to rise under Obama to 2.8 million in 2009 and peaked at 2.9 million in 2010. However, the amount of households that received a foreclosure notice dropped to 1.9 million in 2011.

Romney’s manipulation of economic data on women is even more cynical. He says Obama has “lost 800,000 jobs during his presidency,” and “over 92 percent of the jobs … were lost by women. His policies have been really a war on women.” Factcheck.org exposes the dishonesty of this presentation:

The downturn in male employment began in May 2007 … By the time Obama took office in January 2009, both male and female employment were in a steep decline that continued for over a year. Male employment hit bottom in February 2010, and female employment continued to slump for another seven months, bottoming out in September 2010. … “If you look back to the start of the recession, many of the industries (construction and manufacturing) that were very hard hit initially were male-dominated,” said Margot Dorfman, CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce. … It wasn’t until later that jobs like retail and government jobs, particularly teaching jobs, began to take a hit, affecting women more, Dorfman said.

Obama knows Romney’s truncated story is misleading. His campaign spends much of a 17-minute video showing that the economic decline was well under way by the time he took office. Then the video pivots and, in an equally cynical truncation, claims all the credit for saving Detroit. “Because of the tough choices the president made, the stage was set for a resurgent U.S. auto industry,” says narrator Tom Hanks. But here’s the rest of the story:


Bush announced on Dec. 19, 2008, that his administration would provide General Motors and Chrysler with $13.4 billion in funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. GM would be eligible for an additional $4 billion. … Obama used the viability plans required by Bush to force the automakers to go into bankruptcy and reorganize—successfully completing a process that Bush started.

On spending and deficits, the candidates switch roles again. Romney edits history, claiming that Obama “increased the budget by more than 20%.”  Really? Let’s consult the same referee:

Romney … is attributing to Obama a big rise in spending for fiscal year 2009—which began under Bush, nearly four months before Obama took office. … The BO attributed much of the increased spending in 2009 to three government programs: the stimulus, the Troubled Asset Relief Program and legislation to address the mortgage crisis, all three totaling $353 billion. TARP and the mortgage bailout were passed under Bush.

[W]hat happens today in the energy markets is a result of decisions that were made 4-8 years in the past. For instance, the ethanol production gains in 2010 were not a function of Barack Obama’s energy policies; they were a result of energy legislation passed in 2005 and expanded in 2007. … [T]he reason that oil production has risen under President Obama is … years of steadily increasing oil prices that caused oil companies to approve a number of new projects that had marginal economics at lower oil prices. But these projects take some years to build, and as in the case of the Alaska Pipeline, decisions that were made 4-6 years earlier benefited President Obama with increased domestic oil production.

Do elections make a difference? Sure. Obama’s election sealed the demise of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Romney’s election would affect Supreme Court rulings well into the future. But the more complicated the problem—the economy, terrorism, China—the less likely it is that a president will fundamentally alter it, especially in the short term. Elections can change history. But mostly, they decide which party will pretend that the president changed history for the better, and which party will pretend that he changed it for the worse.