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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Homestretch Fact-Stretchers

In the homestretch to Election Day, both sides stretch the facts in their TV spots. President Obama greatly exaggerates his differences with Mitt Romney over troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, while Romney repeats a false claim that the president plans a $4,000 tax increase on “the middle class.”

First the Obama ad, and its multiple exaggerations:


The ad says, “President Obama ended the Iraq war. Mitt Romney would have left 30,000 troops there and called bringing them home ‘tragic.'” That’s misleading on several counts.

  • Obama also wanted to leave several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq. He tried to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government to allow a residual U.S. force there, but the Iraqi government refused to grant legal immunity to any remaining U.S. troops. The last troops pulled out in December  2011.
  • Romney didn’t say it was “tragic” to bring troops home. He called it a “tragic” mistake to bring them all home so quickly. His exact words, as reported by the New York Times on Nov. 11, 2011, were: “It is my view that the withdrawal of all of our troops from Iraq by the end of this year is an enormous mistake, and failing by the Obama administration. The precipitous withdrawal is unfortunate — it’s more than unfortunate, I think it’s tragic.”
  • And finally, Romney did not say he would leave 30,000 troops in Iraq, but put the number at somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000. His exact words were: “[W]e should have left 10-, 20-, 30-thousand personnel there to help transition to the Iraqis’ own military capabilities.” Obama himself was proposing to leave 3,000 to 4,000 troops there at the time negotiations with the Iraqi government broke down.


The ad also says, “Obama’s brought 30,000 soldiers back from Afghanistan and has a responsible plan to end the war. Romney calls it Obama’s biggest mistake.” That’s also off the mark in multiple ways.

  • While it’s true that Obama has reduced U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan from the peak level reached last year, there were still roughly 68,000 U.S. troops remaining as of last month, which is more than double the 37,000 that were there in January 2009, when he took office.
  • Romney didn’t call it a “mistake” to end the war. He said (according to the Obama campaign’s own documentation) that “announcing the specific date we would withdraw” was among Obama’s “biggest mistakes.” (And since then, Romney has told ABC News that he also would adhere to “the same time frame the president is speaking of” for turning over responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, depending on what commanders tell him and on circumstances “on the ground.” Romney also said he would have delayed pulling 23,000 “surge” troops out of Afganistan until December, rather than bringing them out in September during the “fighting season.”)

Also worth noting is that neither the president nor Romney has pledged to get all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Both have left open the possibility of leaving a residual force. What the president promised in June 2011 was that “our mission will change from combat to support” and that by the end of 2014, “this process of transition will be complete, and the Afghan people will be responsible for their own security.”

Now, the latest Romney TV ad, which also contains multiple distortions.

The Romney ad gives what it claims to be five reasons why Obama should not be reelected. We take each in order.


The ad says that if Obama is reelected “the debt will grow from 16 trillion to 20 trillion dollars.” That indeed is the projection issued in July by the president’s own Office of Management and Budget in its most recent “Mid-Session Review.” (See page 61, total debt issued by Treasury.)

But the debt will also continue to rise if Romney is elected. Even under the budget proposed by his running mate and embraced by Romney, the total debt would still hit $19 trillion by the end of fiscal year 2016 ($13.6 trillion debt owed to the public, plus $5.5 trillion that the government is projected to owe to itself through the Social Security and other trust funds).

That would be $1.3 trillion less than currently projected by Obama’s OMB, if all of Ryan’s unspecified spending cuts could be identified and implemented. Even so, an Obama ad might say that “the debt will rise from $16 trillion to $19 trillion” if Romney is elected, and be just as accurate as this Romney ad.

Losing Health Care

The ad repeats an old Romney claim that “20 million Americans could lose their employer-based health care.” That’s grossly misleading, as we’ve often reported. That’s one projection by the Congressional Budget Office, based on an extreme set of assumptions that CBO says is unlikely to occur. Under a different unlikely set of assumptions, 3 million more people could end up with employer-sponsored health care coverage under Obama’s Affordable Care Act, CBO also estimated.

Under its “baseline” projection — the one it considered most probable — CBO figured 3 million to 5 million fewer persons would have employer-sponsored health care. Some would simply choose to turn down health coverage through their employer to “instead choose to obtain coverage from another source,” such as federally-subsidized policies purchased through new exchanges.

Taxes on ‘Middle Class’

The ad says flatly, “Taxes on the middle class will go up by $4,000,” which is nonsense. Obama proposes no increase on those making under $200,000 a year ($250,000 for couples). Romney misrepresents a finding in an Oct. 2 blog post by the pro-business American Enterprise Institute. The blog post did not say that Obama would raise taxes on anybody.

Rather, it calculated the cost of servicing the debt that the government has incurred since January 2009, and the future debt projected under Obama’s budget out to the year 2022. And it estimated — based on an AEI study published the day before — that this “could” mean a tax increase. It did not say that it “will,” as the Romney ad does.

The $4,000 figure applies to those making between $100,000 and $200,000 a year — which is actually much higher than the “middle.” Median household income last year was $50,054, according to the Census Bureau.

The figure also assumes that the burden of servicing the increased debt is spread over all income groups in the same way that the current federal tax burden (including payroll and income taxes) is apportioned. Both Romney and Obama have said generally that they won’t increase taxes on middle-income households. And the debt will have to be serviced in some way regardless of who’s elected on Nov. 6.

In our earlier analysis of this bogus claim, we noted that — even if Romney is elected and even if he’s able to implement the spending cuts he’s embraced in the budget plan of his running mate, Paul Ryan — the future debt would continue to rise, though more slowly than currently projected under Obama. And, using that same set of assumptions that the Romney ad employs, that would mean a tax increase of $2,732. But it would be just as wrong to say Romney will do that as to say that Obama will raise taxes by $4,000.

Rising Energy Prices

The ad claims that “energy prices will continue to go up” if Obama is elected. Maybe so. We have no ability to predict the future, but neither does Romney. His campaign bases this claim on the recent history of gasoline prices, providing reporters with a link to a table produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, listing the weekly national average price for regular gasoline. And those prices started dropping recently.

It’s true that when Obama took office the price was $1.85 a gallon, and most recently it was $3.82. But it was also over $4 for several weeks during the summer of 2008, and it has never been that high under Obama. Not only is the most recent price 4 cents lower than it was the week before, but USA Today reported Oct. 22 — the same day the Romney campaign released its ad — that “Autumn gasoline prices are about to drop faster than fall foliage.” The newspaper quoted experts as projecting that the national average price of regular could drop to $3.35 by late November.

Medicare Cuts

The ad cites “$716 billion in Medicare cuts that hurt current seniors.” That’s a reference to the 10-year total of cuts contained in the Affordable Care Act in the future growth of spending, not an actual cut below current spending levels. Most would be reductions in the future growth of payments to hospitals and other providers (not physicians).

It’s true that Romney proposes to repeal those cuts along with the rest of the new health care law (although the ad fails to note that his running mate, Ryan, proposed to keep those same cuts, applying the savings to different ends). What’s misleading is that these cuts may or may not end up hurting current seniors. Medicare’s chief actuary has said repeatedly that Congress is likely to keep them from going into effect should they pose big hardships for hospitals, just as Congress has repeatedly postponed cuts in payments to physicians.

For a full discussion of the less-than-illuminating claims made about Medicare by Romney and also by Obama, see our Aug. 22 article, “A Campaign Full of Mediscare.”

— Brooks Jackson