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Obama and Romney both strayed from facts in debate

Independent fact-checkers came down harder on the Republican challenger than on the incumbent after the first debate. But both sides were guilty of twisting the truth.

October 04, 2012|By Times' staff writers
  • Reporters watch the final minutes of the debate between President Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney at the University of Denver. Both candidates kept fact-checkers busy.
Reporters watch the final minutes of the debate between President Obama… (Doug Pensinger, Getty Images )

Aside from Mitt Romney's threat to defund Big Bird, the most commonly cited quip in his debate with President Obama may have been: "Mr. President, you're entitled as the president to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts."

The remark could have applied almost equally to Romney, who charters a private campaign plane, has no shortage of houses and, like Obama, displayed a flexible attitude toward matters of fact Wednesday night in the first presidential debate. Independent fact-checkers came down harder on the Republican challenger than on the incumbent president. But both sides were guilty of, at best, twisting facts for political gain.

Here is a look at some of the major issues discussed in the debate and how the candidates' statements comport with the truth:


Obama, whose 2008 pledge to reduce insurance premiums is unfulfilled, continued to overstate the impact of the new healthcare law, claiming erroneously that premium increases had slowed in recent years. In fact, the average employee share of an employer-provided health plan jumped from $3,515 in 2009 to $4,316 in 2012, an increase of more than 22%, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Health Research & Educational Trust. That is up from an increase of 18% between 2006 and 2009.

But Romney made more false claims about the healthcare law and his own plans to replace it.

The GOP nominee rehashed an oft-debunked claim by conservatives that the law includes a new government board that is "going to tell people ultimately what kind of treatments they can have."

The panel — known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board — is instead charged with recommending ways to control Medicare spending if it increases too rapidly. The independent experts on the board can suggest cuts to how much the federal government pays healthcare providers, but are explicitly prohibited from cutting benefits or rationing care.

Romney also threw out several dubious and discredited studies about the impact of the law, including a survey by consulting giant McKinsey that claimed 30% of employers would drop health coverage. McKinsey was forced to retract the report after admitting that many respondents didn't actually manage health benefits for their companies.

At the same time, Romney misrepresented his own healthcare proposals, claiming, for example that people with preexisting medical conditions are covered in his plan. In fact, Romney has said only sick Americans who currently have insurance will be guaranteed coverage in the future.

— Noam N. Levey


Obama's claim that Romney has proposed a $5-trillion tax cut has its roots in a study by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. The center said Romney's proposal for a 20% across-the-board tax cut added up to $5 trillion over 10 years — the typical time frame for evaluating a tax change. But Obama's comment entirely overlooked Romney's repeated assertions that the net result would be "revenue neutral" — in other words, by eliminating deductions, he would wind up with no net cut in taxes.

Romney's defense, however, is problematic because he doesn't provide enough information to fully evaluate how his tax plans would work. Moreover, in the past, he has repeatedly said that he intends to cut taxes.

In discussing the deductions he would cut, Romney proposed a cap of $25,000 or $50,000 on deductions that would get lower for wealthier taxpayers, until the very wealthiest are barred from taking any deductions.

Romney's idea could work, said J.D. Foster, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. But he said it's impossible to know how with the information at hand. "This is one of those puzzles that, unless you have all of the pieces, you can't figure out how any of the pieces fit together," he said.

Joseph Rosenberg, a research associate at the Tax Policy Center, said analysts in his office believe the plan would inevitably benefit the wealthy, who tend to get less benefit from deductions than middle-income people. Given that, eliminating deductions "can't fully offset the tax cuts that he's described."

— Mitchell Landsberg


Romney defended his record on education by noting at least twice that Massachusetts, where he served as governor from 2003 to 2007, is "No. 1 in the nation."

Massachusetts has been the top-ranked state for the last four years on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test given to a sample of students nationwide. Massachusetts also has been praised for its rigorous academic standards.

The state has the advantage of higher funding than many states and, compared with California, for example, has a less challenging student population, in terms of family income, parent education levels and native English speakers.

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