A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking the Hofstra Debate

Obama and Romney continue false, misleading attacks in second debate.


The second Obama-Romney debate was heated, confrontational and full of claims that sometimes didn’t match the facts.

  • Obama challenged Romney to “get the transcript” when Romney questioned the president’s claim to have spoken of an “act of terror” the day after the slaying of four Americans in Libya. The president indeed referred to “acts of terror” that day, but then refrained from labeling it a terrorist attack.
  • Obama claimed Romney once called Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law a “model” for the nation. He didn’t. Romney said that of an earlier Arizona law requiring employers to check the immigration status of employees.
  • Obama falsely claimed Romney once referred to wind-power jobs as “imaginary.” Not true. Romney actually spoke of “an imaginary world” where “windmills and solar panels could power the economy.”
  • Romney said repeatedly he won’t cut taxes for the wealthy, a switch from his position during the GOP primaries, when he said the top 1 percent would be among those to benefit.
  • Romney said “a recent study has shown” that taxes “will” rise on the middle class by $4,000 as a result of federal debt increases since Obama took office. Not true. That’s just one possible way debt service could be financed.
  • Romney claimed 580,000 women have lost jobs under Obama. The true figure is closer to 93,000.
  • Romney claimed the automakers’ bankruptcy that Obama implemented was “precisely what I recommend.” Romney did favor a bankruptcy followed by federal loan guarantees, but not the direct federal aid that Obama insists was essential.
  • Romney said he would keep Pell Grants for low-income college students “growing.” That’s a change. Both Romney and his running mate, Ryan, have previously said they’d limit eligibility.

Both candidates repeated false or misleading claims they have made, and we have rebutted, many times before. Obama repeated his claim that he wouldn’t put tax rates for affluent families higher than they were under Bill Clinton. Actually, he’s already signed two new taxes that will also fall on those same high-income persons. And Romney accused Obama of saying “no” to the Keystone XL pipeline. Actually, no final decision has been made, and the company says it expects to win approval and start construction early next year.

For full details on these and other claims in this spin-filled debate, along with links to original sources and full source citations, please read on to our Analysis section.


The second debate between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, was held at Hofstra University on New York’s Long Island. It was a town-meeting affair in which both candidates frequently interrupted and contradicted each other.

Terrorist Attack in Libya

There was a sharp exchange between the candidates on the issue of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi and the question of when the president acknowledged it was a terrorist attack. Obama said he called it an “act of terror” the day after the attack. Romney said that “it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”

Obama is correct that he referred to “acts of terror” in a Sept. 12 speech in the Rose Garden. But after that Obama refused to characterize it as a terrorist attack while it was under investigation — even though other administration officials did.

Obama: The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people in the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened. That this was an act of terror and I also said that we’re going to hunt down those who committed this crime. …

Romney: You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror. It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you’re saying?

Obama: Please proceed governor.

Romney: I want to make sure we get that for the record because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.

Obama: Get the transcript.

The transcript does show that Obama said in a Rose Garden speech on Sept. 12: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” That night, he said at a Las Vegas fundraiser: “No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.” Obama employed the “act of terror” phrase a third time a day later at a campaign event in Colorado.

But Romney isn’t entirely wrong. Romney claimed Obama refused for two weeks after the Benghazi attack to call it a terrorist attack and, instead, blamed it on a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Muslim video that earlier that day triggered a violent protest in Egypt.

The president did seem to suggest in his Rose Garden speech that a reason for the Benghazi attack was the video. Obama said: “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths. We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence. None.”

It is also true that Obama refrained from characterizing the attack as an premeditated act of terrorism. The administration adopted a wait-and-see position, deflecting questions until the investigation into the attack could be completed. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, for example, was asked in a Sept. 17 press briefing if the administration considered the Benghazi attack an act of terror. She said: “Again, I’m not going to put labels on this until we have a complete investigation, okay?”

A day later, Obama was asked about the Benghazi attack on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” The president said “here’s what happened” and began discussing the impact of the anti-Muslim video. He then said “extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the consulate in Libya.” He also said, “As offensive as this video was and, obviously, we’ve denounced it and the United States government had nothing to do with it. That’s never an excuse for violence.”

Matt Olsen, head of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified on Sept. 19 that it was a “terrorist attack.” He also said the administration still lacked “specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack.”

A day later, White House press secretary Jay Carney said it is “self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.” And on Sept. 21 — two days after Olsen’s testimony — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said “what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.”

Yet, when asked on ABC’s “The View” whether it was a terrorist attack, Obama refused to say. That was on Sept. 24. He said, “We’re still doing an investigation. There’s no doubt that the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn’t just a mob action. We don’t have all the information yet, so we’re still gathering it.”

The Romney campaign has accused the administration of misleading the public by claiming the anti-Muslim video was to blame for the attack in Benghazi, rather than admitting it was a failure to detect and prevent an act of terrorism on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. We cannot say if there was a deliberate attempt to mislead the public or whether, as the administration says, the conflicting statements in the weeks after the attack were the result of an evolving investigation. We’ll leave that for readers to decide.

Update, Oct. 17: We revised our article to include a third instance in which the president used the phrase “act of terror” and another time in which he said that “extremists and terrorists” used the anti-Muslim video “as an excuse” to attack the U.S. consulate in Libya. We thank the readers who brought these incidents to our attention. We also added the date of the president’s interview on “The View.”

A ‘Model’ Law?

Obama said that Romney called Arizona’s 2010 immigration enforcement law “a model for the nation.” But Romney was referring to an employment verification law enacted three years earlier.

At a GOP presidential primary debate in February, Romney said: “You know, I think you see a model in Arizona. They passed a law here that says — that says that people who come here and try and find work, that the employer is required to look them up on E-Verify. This E-Verify system allows employers in Arizona to know who’s here legally and who’s not here legally.”

Arizona’s Fair and Legal Employment Act, which was signed in 2007, requires Arizona employers to use the federal E-Verify system to check the employment eligibility of the workers they employ, and penalizes employers who knowingly hire unauthorized workers.

Some interpreted Romney’s remarks at the February debate as saying that Arizona’s 2010 immigration enforcement law was a “model” for the country. But as the full context of his remarks show — and as his campaign later clarified — Romney was specifically referring to the state’s employment verification process, not the state’s 2010 immigration law.

Obama also said that Romney’s “top adviser on immigration is the guy who designed” the 2010 immigration law. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped draft Arizona’s immigration law, has said that he is an “unpaid adviser” on immigration policy for the Romney campaign. But there is no indication that he is the campaign’s “top adviser,” as Obama said.

‘Imaginary’ Wind-Power Jobs

Obama lifted a Romney quote about wind energy out of context in an attempt to draw a sharper contrast between himself and Romney on renewable energy. Romney didn’t call wind energy “imaginary,” as Obama claimed. Rather, Romney said that wind and solar cannot “power the economy.” Romney contested Obama’s characterization during the debate.

Obama: So, for example, on wind energy, when Governor Romney says these are imaginary jobs, when you’ve got thousands of people right now in Iowa, right now in Colorado, who are working, creating wind power with good-paying manufacturing jobs, and the Republican senator … in Iowa is all for it.

Romney: I don’t have a policy of stopping wind jobs in Iowa and that — they’re not phantom jobs. They’re real jobs. I appreciate wind jobs in Iowa and across our country.

Romney opposes the extension of wind production tax credits (though he does support funding for basic research into cleaner energy technology, including wind). But Romney didn’t call wind energy jobs “imaginary.”

Here’s what Romney penned in an op-ed for the Columbus Dispatch on March 5, 2012:

Romney, March 5, 2012: In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy. This vision has failed.

Romney’s point was that wind and solar cannot “power the economy,” and that’s correct. In fact, all renewable energy (including hydro power and biofuels) accounted for 9 percent of the nation’s energy consumption in 2011. And while wind generation has doubled since 2008, it still only accounted for 13 percent of all renewable energy generated in 2011. That’s still a very small fraction of the nation’s overall energy supply.

A Romney campaign white paper on energy lambasted “subsidies for an uncompetitive technology to survive in the market” that would be better served by “eliminating any barriers that might prevent the best technologies from succeeding on their own.” Obama, on the other hand, has been a vocal proponent of tax credits to help the wind and solar industries. In short, there are clear policy differences between Obama and Romney on wind and solar issues, but Obama went too far with his claim that Romney called wind energy jobs “imaginary.”

Cutting Taxes for the Wealthy

Romney said that “I am not going to have people at the high end pay less than they’re paying now” under his tax plan. But that’s not what he said earlier, as Obama correctly noted.

Obama: [D]uring a Republican primary, he stood onstage and said, I’m going to give tax cuts — he didn’t say tax rate cuts; he said tax cuts — to everybody, including the top 1 percent, you should believe him, because that’s been his history.

Romney pushed back, explaining that “I’m not looking to cut taxes for wealthy people.” But his remarks this time were different in tone and substance than what he said before, as the president suggested.

Obama was referring to an exchange during a Republican primary debate, when Rick Santorum charged that Romney “suggested raising taxes on the top 1 percent.” Romney countered:

Romney, Feb 22, 2012: I said today that we’re going to cut taxes on everyone across the country by 20 percent, including the top 1 percent.

$4,000 in Higher Taxes on Middle Class?

Romney was wrong when he said “the middle class will see $4,000 per year in higher taxes” as a result of Obama’s fiscal policies. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative group that did the study cited by Romney, calculated the potential impact on different income groups if the U.S. raised taxes to service the national debt. Obama is not planning to raise taxes on the middle class to service the debt any more than Romney says he is.

In its study, AEI calculated the increase in the federal debt under three budget scenarios — including the president’s fiscal year 2013 budget — and then determined the tax burden on 11 income groups if the debt was serviced solely by raising taxes. The other budget scenarios were “current law,” which among other things assumes the Bush-era tax cuts expire for everyone as scheduled at the end of the year, and “current policy,” which assumes the extension of current policies through 2013 — including the Bush tax cuts.

The study itself said Obama’s budget “provides a middle ground between these two extremes.” An AEI blogger wrote an Oct. 2 post that said Obama’s “budget deficits could mean a $4,000 a year middle-class tax hike.” That’s the source of Romney’s claim. The blogger arrives at that figure by combining the potential tax burden already accrued under Obama with the potential tax burden over the next 10 years.

But, as we noted when we first wrote about this, the national debt will continue to rise regardless of who becomes the next president. By Romney’s logic, the House budget resolution crafted by his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, will “raise taxes” on the middle class by $2,732 over that same period of time through serving the debt accrued in Obama’s first term and the amount that would accrue under Ryan’s budget.

For more on this, please see “Romney’s $4,000 Tax Tale.”

Romney Wrong on Women’s Jobs

Romney used a bloated and incorrect figure for the net loss of women’s jobs during Obama’s term.

Romney: In the — in the last four years, women have lost 580,000 jobs. That’s the net of what’s happened in the last four years. We’re still down 580,000 jobs.

Actually, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the net loss of women’s jobs since January 2009, when the president took office, is 283,000.

Even the 283,000 figure is an overstatement. The BLS also has announced that its routine annual benchmarking process will result next year in adding 386,000 total jobs — men and women — to the official historical figures. It did not say how many of those would be women’s jobs, but about 49 percent of total employment is currently accounted for by women. So about 190,000 will probably be subtracted from the 283,000 figure. That would put the current loss at 93,000, making Romney’s figure six times too high.

We assume Romney’s reference to “four years” was meant to cover only Obama’s term. For the record, the number of women’s jobs lost in the last four months of the Bush administration was 833,000, according to the BLS. So the total over four years would come to 1.1 million, with the large majority lost before Obama was sworn in.

Romney may simply have failed to update a shopworn talking point to reflect current reality. Both men and women have gained jobs steadily in recent months. Also, in May the BLS announced it had corrected figures for women’s jobs after discovering it had failed to count 64,000 female employees of the U.S. Postal Service for several years due to a data processing error.

Same rates?

Obama repeated his claim that he’d put tax rates on the affluent no higher than they had been under President Clinton.

Obama: [F]or above $250,000, we can go back to the tax rates we had when Bill Clinton was president. We created 23 million new jobs.

That’s true only for federal income tax rates, which Obama would restore to pre-Bush levels for family income exceeding $250,000 ($200,000 for individuals.) But, as we’ve noted before, Obama already has enacted new taxes that also will fall on those same taxpayers. For those high-income persons, the new health care law contains a 3.8 percent tax on investment income, and a 0.9 percent Medicare payroll tax surcharge on wages and salaries exceeding those thresholds.

As a result many, if not most, high-income persons will pay more in federal taxes under Obama’s proposed rates than they did under Clinton.

Auto Bailouts and Bankruptcy

Obama claimed that Romney “said we should let Detroit go bankrupt,” while Romney countered that “the president took Detroit bankrupt. … That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened.” There’s some truth and misleading bits on both sides here.

Romney wrote a Nov. 18, 2008, op-ed, published in the New York Times, that carried the headline “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.” He argued against a bailout but for a “managed bankruptcy” in which he said that the “federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.”

The automakers did go through a managed bankruptcy but not exactly the way Romney proposed. Obama provided loans and made equity investments in General Motors and Chrysler. Both President George W. Bush and Obama used federal funds through TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program). GM and Chrylser got $80 billion, and nearly $41 billion has been repaid. Obama required the car companies to come up with reorganization plans as a condition for receiving the federal aid.

A Congressional Research Service report on the restructuring of GM published in September concluded that “[w]ithout the U.S. government assistance, GM would not have been able to pay creditors, suppliers, or workers and would most likely have entered bankruptcy earlier with a less certain outcome.” It said that government support enabled an orderly reorganization and “may have reduced collateral damage to many auto suppliers and some of the other automakers who buy parts from them,” but it also “exposed the U.S. government to risk that not all the assistance would be recovered.”

Growing Pell Grants?

Romney said, “I want to make sure we keep our Pell — Pell Grant program growing.” Some voters may have been confused by that statement, since both Romney and his running mate, Ryan, have indicated they would limit eligibility for the program. Ryan has also said he would keep the maximum award exactly where it is. But at a University of Miami forum in late September, Romney said he would favor having the college grant increase somewhat, with the rate of inflation.

In a position paper on education published in May, Romney said he would “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most and place the program on a responsible long-term path that avoids future funding cliffs and last-minute funding patches.” Ryan, too, proposed in his budget plan “limiting the growth of financial aid and focusing it on low-income students who need it the most.”

In April, Ryan said his plan “maintains the maximum Pell award of $5,550.” So, he’d keep the same level of funding for students who received Pell Grants, but he’d limit eligibility.

But at a Sept. 19 forum for college students at the University of Miami, Romney said, “My inclination would be to have them go with the rate of inflation.”

Gasoline Prices Up $2,000?

Romney made the misleading claim that “gasoline prices have gone up $2,000.” He’s making a claim about the average price of gasoline per year per household, not per vehicle.

To get there, Romney took the increase in the average national price of regular gasoline since January 2009 (about $2, according to the Energy Information Administration) and multiplied it by the average number of gallons consumed per vehicle (678 in 2010, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics) and the average number of vehicles per household (1.92 in 2009, according to the Department of Energy).

But the $2,000 figure is greatly inflated because gasoline prices were much higher during most of 2008 than they were at the moment Obama was sworn in. They were temporarily depressed by the world recession, and the yearly cost per family was much higher for all of 2008 than the figure Romney uses as his base. During 2008 prices hit over $4.10 per gallon, and have never been that high since. The most recent monthly average was $3.91.

Romney Repeats

Romney repeated a few other old claims that we’ve checked before:

  • He said Obama “doubled” the deficit. Romney is wrong. Obama inherited a projected $1.2 trillion deficit when he took office, as we wrote after the last debate. The government actually ended up with a $1.4 trillion deficit that year — a record. And deficits have remained high since then. It’s true that Obama hasn’t delivered on his 2009 State of the Union address promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. CBO estimates the president’s latest budget plan would drop the deficit to $702 billion in fiscal 2014 and $539 billion in fiscal 2015.
  • Romney accused Obama of saying “no” to an oil pipeline from Canada, which isn’t entirely accurate. In fact, no final decision has been made on the cross-border Keystone XL pipeline project, which would run from Hardisty, Alberta, in Canada to Steele City, Neb. The TransCanada pipeline company says it will submit a new application soon and anticipates quick approval of the project “in the first quarter of 2013, after which construction will quickly begin.” The Obama administration denied TransCanada’s original route in November 2011 because of concerns that it would pass through the ecologically sensitive Sandhills area of Nebraska.
  • Romney said health insurance premiums had gone up by $2,500. Not true. The average premium for a family employer-based policy has gone up $1,975 between 2010 and 2012, according to an annual survey of employer plans by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Health Research & Educational Trust. That’s the total increase for both employers and employees. And Kaiser’s 2011 and 2012 reports said that the amount paid by employees hadn’t changed much.
  • Romney claimed, as he has in many stump speeches, that Obama “said that by now we’d have unemployment at 5.4 percent.” Romney is referring to a speculative report issued at the beginning of Obama’s presidency containing projections — not promises — about how the stimulus would affect the economy.  Those projections relied on prevailing economic models that quickly proved to have underestimated the depths of the recession at that time.

— by Brooks Jackson, Eugene Kiely, Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D’Angelo Gore, Ben Finley and Michael Morse


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