The Obama-Romney debate fact-check: Who told the biggest whoppers?

Mitt Romney stretched the truth in the Denver debate. So did President Obama. A look at how various nonpartisan fact-checkers scored the debate

It seems that by virtue of having spoken about more facts, Mitt Romney is getting dinged more for having stretched the truth on said facts, say analysts.
(Image credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Wednesday night's face-off between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney "was a debate to forget," says Richard Cohen at The Washington Post. "Neither scored a knockout blow," and even if one of them had, only the most dedicated political junkie would have been awake to notice. "What the hardy viewer got to see was an exchange of numbers, some of them in the trillion-dollar range, whose accuracy the viewer could not possibly judge." That's where the fact-checkers step in, and there are a lot of them this year. With reason: Both candidates "often stretched the facts," says Becky Bowers at PolitiFact, one of the biggest truth-judgers. As Romney said to Obama — but just as easily could have said of himself — you're entitled "to your own airplane and to your own house, but not to your own facts." So, which claims from the debate were true, false, or merely exaggerated? And which candidate crossed the line more often? Here, a scorecard of some of the biggest whoppers, and some that pass the test:

Romney: Obama is "cutting $716 billion" from Medicare

The verdict: "Half-True"

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What's true is the number — ObamaCare reduces the growth of Medicare spending by $716 billion over 10 years, primarily in what's paid to hospitals and insurers, says PolitiFact. But Romney "gives the impression that the law takes money already allocated to Medicare away from current recipients," and that's not true. In fact, "Medicare money isn't being taken away," period, adds And the slower growth, if successful, will actually keep the depleting Medicare trust fund solvent for eight years longer.

Obama: Romney's plan "calls for a $5 trillion tax cut"

The verdict: "Half-True"

Romney flatly denied that he's proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, but "he has proposed cutting all marginal tax rates by 20 percent — which would in and of itself cut tax revenue by $5 trillion," says Annie Lowrey at The New York Times. Where this gets tricky, says PolitiFact, is that Romney claims he will make up the lost revenue through ending unspecified tax deductions and closing unspecified loopholes. In other words, "the president made a misleading statement about an incomplete plan, but he did describe what the plan was missing and that Romney would not fill in the gaps."

Obama: Romney "would give millionaires another tax break and raise taxes on middle class families by up to $2,000 a year"

The verdict: "Mostly true"

This claim is based on a reputable analysis of Romney's incomplete plan by the Tax Policy Center. Number-crunchers agree that to meet Romney's stated goals of cutting taxes by 20 percent while not increasing the deficit, the closed loopholes and scrapped exemptions can't just hit the wealthy. The Tax Policy Center's view that middle class families would lose exemptions of up to $2,000 fits with what we know of Romney's proposal.

Romney: Six studies prove that Obama's charge about him raising taxes is "completely wrong"

The verdict: "Mostly False"

The "studies" Romney cites include two Wall Street Journal editorials, an article in the same paper by one of his own economic advisers, and two analyses by conservative think tanks. And even those studies, says Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post, "do not provide much evidence that Romney's proposal — as sketchy as it is — would be revenue neutral without making unrealistic assumptions."

Obama: Romney wants to turn Medicare into a "voucher system"

The verdict: "Mostly True"

The idea behind turning Medicare into a "premium support" system is that seniors would get a fixed amount to spend on health care, says PolitiFact. So "generally, we think 'voucher program' is a fair way of describing to voters the vision for Medicare under a Romney-Ryan administration." Where Obama's claim is "misleading," says, is that it "ignores the plain fact that Obama supports other, popular health-care programs that work the same way," including one created by ObamaCare for under-65 beneficiaries.

Romney: ObamaCare creates "an unelected board that's going to tell people what kind of treatments they can have"

The verdict: "Mostly False"

This is "one of the biggest whoppers of the night," says National Journal, a line Republicans "regularly and inaccurately" used when they warned that ObamaCare would create a "death panel." In fact, the Medicare board created by ObamaCare is "explicitly restricted from directly cutting Medicare benefits." Its charge is to keep overall spending within a specific target. He doesn't explicitly accuse the board of rationing, says PolitiFact, "but Romney's claim can leave viewers with the impression that the board makes health-care decisions for individual Americans, and that's not the case."

Obama: The economy has created 5 million private sector jobs in the past 30 months

The verdict: True, but...

That number is accurate, says NPR's John Ydstie, "but it also ignores an inconvenient truth (for the president), that about the same number of jobs were lost during Obama's first year in office."

Romney: Obama "doubled the deficit"

The verdict: "Not true"

When Obama took office in January 2009, the Congressional Budget Office had already estimated that the federal deficit in fiscal 2009 (ending in September) would be $1.2 trillion, says Jackie Calmes at The New York Times. It ended up being $1.4 trillion. For fiscal 2012, the deficit was $1.1 trillion lower than when he took office. And "measured as a share of the economy, as economists prefer, the deficit has declined more significantly — from 10.1 percent of the economy's total output in 2009 to 7.3 percent for 2012."

Romney: Obama "provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world," and half the companies failed

The verdict: Partly true

The $90 billion, from the 2009 stimulus bill, isn't really "breaks," says Rachel Weiner at The Washington Post. It's a combination of loans, loan guarantees, and grants, spread out over several years. "Furthermore, not all of the money went to the 'green energy world'" — $23 billion went toward "clean coal," cleaning up nuclear waste, and updating the power grid. And Romney's claim that half the green-energy companies that received federal loans have failed is "a gross overstatement," says John M. Broder at The New York Times. Only three of the nearly three dozen loan recipients are currently in bankruptcy, "although several others are facing financial difficulties."

Obama: Twenty years ago Wednesday, "Michelle Obama agreed to marry me"

The verdict: Half-True

As "an astute tweeter noted," say NPR's Mark Memmott and Scott Montgomery, "20 years ago, the First Lady's last name was Robinson," not Obama.

Final score: Both Romney and Obama had their moments of "truthiness," exaggeration, or stretching the truth beyond recognition, say NPR's Memmott and Montgomery. But, at least partly "because Romney made more factual assertions, he's getting dinged more" by the fact-checkers.

Sources: The Daily Beast,, National Journal, The New York Times, NPR, PolitiFact, The Washington Post (2)

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