In what will rank as one of the all-time presidential PR disasters, we're now well over half way through what the White House called "the summer of recovery." And what a recovery it's been.
Earlier this month, first-time claims for unemployment hit a nine-month high. The unemployment rate remains at 9.5% and 18.4% of workers are out of a job, can only get part-time work, or have given up looking for a job altogether. Sales of existing homes dropped 27% from June to July, hitting the lowest point since data were first collected in 1999. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index fell to 50.4 in July, continuing a slide that started in February. And the stock market is down 11% from its peak in April.
All of this has helped shatter public confidence in the president. In early May, Mr. Obama's approval on the economy in the YouGov/Polimetrix poll was 42%. By mid-August, it was 35%—a frightening number for Democrats less than 70 days from a midterm election. According to this week's Reuters poll, 72% are "very" worried about jobs and 67% "very concerned" about government spending.
Mr. Obama's credibility is crumbling, and for good reason: He and his people are saying things people don't believe. At the start of his summer of recovery road show, the president flatly asserted that last year's massive stimulus package had "worked." Vice President Joe Biden, not to be outdone, promised monthly job gains of up to 500,000 and insisted that the recovery's pace "continues to increase, not decrease" as stimulus spending was "moving into its highest gear."
It's slightly surreal. "Who are you going to believe," as Groucho Marx once said, "me or your own eyes?"
The administration's claims have collided with reality in other instances as well. Mr. Obama's Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer—speaking before the 2009 stimulus was approved—said unemployment would top out at 8% by the third quarter of 2009 and decline to less than 7% by the end of 2010. Even the White House now admits that the unemployment rate will stay at or above 9% through 2011.
The White House also frequently asserts that "between 2.3 million and 2.8 million jobs were either saved or created" by the $620 billion in stimulus money spent by June. Set aside the absurdity of the administration inventing the "saved" category and then pretending it can ascertain, with scientific precision, the number of jobs that have been "saved." Since the stimulus passed, 2.6 million Americans have lost their jobs and 1.2 million people have given up even looking for work.
Mr. Obama and his people also mischaracterize where most stimulus dollars go. Their constant prattle about "shovel ready projects" is an attempt to leave the impression that most goes to bricks and mortar. Not true: Only 3.3% of the $814 billion stimulus went to the Federal Highway Administration for highway and bridge projects.
The administration's misleading statements and obfuscations aren't limited to the economy. On health care, for example, Mr. Obama continues saying that (a) health-care reform will reduce costs and the deficit, (b) no one who wants to keep existing coverage will lose it, and (c) the law's cuts in Medicare won't threaten any senior's health care. These assertions are laughable.
The president's habit of exaggeration and misstatement has infected other Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example, routinely talks about how the recently passed "Stimulus II" spending bill protected the jobs of police and firemen.
But it didn't.
Stimulus II consisted of two parts: $10 billion for education and $16 billion for Medicaid. States can't spend Medicaid money for anything but Medicaid, and they can only spend the education money on education, i.e., they can't shuffle state funds around. Language allowing Stimulus II dollars to pay for police and firemen didn't make it out of the Senate. Yet Democratic leaders persist in saying that their latest stimulus has helped keep police and firefighters on the job. The claim is flatly untrue.
By overselling the stimulus before its passage in 2009 and exaggerating its benefits with layer upon layer of slippery half-truths in 2010, Mr. Obama has made voters angrier. This is not America's summer of recovery; it is a summer of economic discontent that will ensure that Democrats take a pounding in the midterm elections.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, August 25, 2010.