WASHINGTON -- "Facts are stubborn things," John Adams argued in defense of the British soldiers who were acquitted in the Boston Massacre trial in 1770. But in the hands of President Obama they are malleable things to be made up and used for political purposes, either in defense of his wildly exaggerated claims about the effectiveness of his agenda or in his deeply partisan attacks on the Republicans in the midst of his party's losing campaign in the midterm elections.
Take, for example, the president's unsubstantiated charge that the Republicans' Pledge to America campaign agenda would cut 1/5 of the nation's education funds to provide tax cuts to the wealthy.
Obama made the wild and politically explosive accusation at the White House Summit on Community Colleges on Tuesday, warning educators that those mean old Republicans were out to gut federal assistance programs that help support what he called "the unsung heroes of America's education system."
"Think about it: China isn't slashing education by 20 percent right now," he said, adding that the GOP proposal was the equivalent of "unilaterally disarming our troops right as they head to the front lines."
You can almost feel the intense political angst and anger coursing through the Obama speechwriter as he or she punched out those words on the computer.
But it isn't true. If you search through every word in the GOP's Pledge to America, you will not find a single proposal to cut funding for community colleges.
The Pledge would roll back overall non-security discretionary spending to 2008 levels, but it does not call for or require spending cuts in specific programs. The vast congressional appropriations process deals with a multitude of programs and spending priorities -- some are increased, others are decreased.
The Pledge seeks to reset total spending at a much lower level by halting the administration's "reckless spending spree," GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, who chaired the Pledge initiative, said in a statement responding to the president's charge.
But misleading and untrue statements have become a bad habit for this president. "A president's most valuable asset -- with voters, Congress, allies and enemies -- is credibility," Stanford University economist Michael Boskin wrote not too long ago in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Obama's Economic Fish Stories." "So it is unfortunate when extreme exaggeration emanates from the White House." For example, Obama has said repeatedly in his speeches, press conferences and interviews that "every economist who's looked at it says that the (economic stimulus) has done its job" and turned the economy around.
"That's nonsense. Opinions differ widely and many leading economists believe that its impact has been small," says Boskin, a former chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
Obama has repeatedly stated in one form or another that "It is largely thanks to the Recovery Act that a second depression is no longer a possibility."
The most common definition of a depression is a sustained period when GDP or consumption drops by at least 10 percent. But GDP fell in this recession by 3.8 percent, and 2 percent in consumption. Yes, it was severe, but Obama, by "revoking the laws of arithmetic," was tripling his own economic adviser's estimate of the stimulus' effect on the economy, Boskin says. More recently, Obama continues to insist that the economy will not be weakened in any way if the Bush tax cuts on the two top income tax brackets expire at the end of this year.
But his own economic advisers have conspicuously disagreed with him. Christina Romer, the recently departed chairwoman of his Council of Economic Advisers, in a paper she and her husband wrote in the American Economic Review, flatly concluded that "tax increases are highly contractionary."
They based their conclusion not on politics but on stubborn facts that show higher income tax levels are a drag on economic growth, investment and business expansion, reducing incomes and lowering consumer demand.
No sooner had Obama's economic adviser and budget director Peter Orszag left his job in the White House than he was telling the country in a New York Times op-ed that raising taxes in a recession would further weaken the economy.
"Higher taxes now would crimp consumer spending, further depressing the already inadequate demand for what firms are capable of producing at full tilt," he said -- advice he had surely given Obama before leaving.
Obama told a CNBC economic forum recently that he's "done the math" and that the government cannot afford to give tax cuts to the rich; keeps repeating that the cuts would go to lots of billionaires. (Forbes magazine says there are only 469 of them in the country.) Actually, a CBO analysis found that the 2001-2003 tax cuts were responsible for less than 14 percent of the deficits (less under a dynamic model analysis that weighed their impact on growth). The recession played the biggest role in the mounting deficits, as federal tax revenues plummeted, along with Obama's massive spending increases for his stimulus and the rest of his agenda.
Obama keeps saying the Bush tax cuts produced record deficits, but the budget deficit was a manageable $161 billion in 2007, the year before the recession hit. Another stubborn fact the president chooses to ignore.