Mitt Romney participates in a sixth-grade language class at Universal… (Mario Tama / Getty Images )
It was kind of a buzz-kill moment.
Earlier this month, at a town hall meeting in Township, Pa., Mitt Romney mentioned that the jobless rate had dropped a bit, from 8.2% to 8.1%.
The audience started to applaud, but Romney stopped them.
"Normally, that would be cause for celebration," said the former Massachusetts governor. "But anything near 8% or over 4% percent is not cause for celebration.... The reason the rate came down is because about 340,000 people dropped out of the workforce. So many became discouraged, they stopped looking for work."
It seemed a little jarring, then, when Romney sat down with Time magazine earlier this week and vowed that if he is elected, by the end of his first term the unemployment rate would be -- drum roll -- 6%.
"I can't possibly predict precisely what the unemployment rate will be at the end of one year," he told Time's Mark Halperin. "I can tell you that over a period of four years, by virtue of the policies we'd put in place, we'd get the unemployment rate down to 6%, and perhaps a little lower."
This doesn't sound like a throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet moment, campaign-wise. Rather, Romney's vow seemed more like the abundantly cautious position of an already cautious candidate.
It may not be much of a prediction. After all, the Congressional Budget Office is forecasting based on current trends that by 2016 — the final year of the next presidential term – the unemployment rate will fall to 5.3%.
Perhaps Romney, mindful of the Obama administration's previous forecasts about the unemployment rate, is being pragmatic and simply doesn't want to box himself in. Shortly after taking office, Obama famously said that if the economy didn't turn around in three years, he was looking at a "one-term proposition." In early 2009, when he was president-elect, his economic advisers promised that the $787-billion stimulus package would bring the unemployment rate back to under 8%.
Of course, the economic decline had not yet bottomed out. The overall unemployment rate climbed, peaking at 10.2% in October 2009 before beginning a slow but very uneven descent.
In a conference call with reporters on Wednesday, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt accused Romney of changing his tune on unemployment.
"Government economists have been clear that under current law their projection today is that unemployment will hit 6% by that point," LaBolt said. "Romney moved the goal post in just a matter of weeks. He said that he was going to get it down to 4% several weeks ago. Now he's at 6% and he's already moved the goal post on a critical promise that he has made."
But Romney did not promise to reduce the unemployment rate to 4%. He said a 4% unemployment rate would be cause for celebration.
As it certainly would.