Mad lib presidential ad from the Obama campaign

Obama campaign ad:  “It’s said that ‘Character is what we do when we think no one is looking.’  Mitt Romney thought no one was looking when he attacked 47 percent of Americans.  His companies shipped jobs overseas.  His plan cuts millionaires’ taxes but raises yours.  He’ll voucherize Medicare and make “catastrophic cuts” to education.  So remember what Romney said and what his plan would do.”



There’s quite a bit wrong with the Obama campaign’s closing argument ad, “No One Was Looking.”  Each point in the ad contains one or more misleading elements.

The Facts

The ad:



1)  People do say that character is what one does when nobody is looking. But it’s not really the point of the ad.

2)  Gov. Romney almost certainly did not believe that no one was looking when he made his private speech in Florida.  People giving speeches recognize there is an audience.

3)  The ad makes the implicit claim that Romney attacked 47 percent of Americans.

4)  The ad claims “Romney’s companies” shipped jobs overseas.

5)  The ad claims “Romney’s plan” cuts taxes on millionaires while increasing taxes on those in lower tax brackets.

6)  The ad claims Romney will “voucherize” Medicare.

7)  The ad claims Romney will make “catastrophic cuts” to education.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

Claims three through seven make up the meat of the ad.  The first two claims just try to make the point that subsequent claims in the ad indicate something about Romney’s character.  The ad is at least partly a character attack ad as a result.

3)  Did Romney attack 47 percent of Americans with his comments at the private Florida fundraiser?  We argue that the Obama campaign and mainstream fact checkers probably took Romney out of context.  He talked about two different groups making up about 47 percent of the American population and the critics conflated the two.  The out-of-context quotation makes a good tool for attacking Romney.

4)  Did Romney’s companies ship jobs overseas?  Fact checker PolitiFact found some truth to this claim by focusing on whether companies under the Bain Capital banner continued to qualify as “Romney’s companies” after Romney no longer oversaw operations at Bain.

Rhetorically, this is about as silly as it gets.

Labor is a commodity, and trade in labor has the same dynamics as trade in other commodities.   Conservatives run from the charge of outsourcing jobs because it plays poorly with the electorate.  But even most liberals realize that trading labor in the form of outsourced jobs can be a good thing.  None other than President Obama likes to use rhetoric about training workers for the jobs of tomorrow.  Those jobs we don’t export to low-wage countries because the labor force doesn’t do the job cost-effectively.  The White House, of course, has hidden from the accurate charge that an auto company Mr. Obama claims to have rescued will stop exporting over 20,000 Jeep SUVs annually to China.  Chinese workers will build those Jeep SUVs.

There’s room for legitimate debate over whether the government should protect some jobs and industries in the interest of national security.  Successfully attacking the other side for exporting any job forestalls that useful debate.

5)  Does “Romney’s plan” cut taxes for millionaires while raising taxes on the rest of us?  Romney’s plan lowers tax rates for all and eliminates deductions on high income earners.  That’s the plan, though it’s short on specifics as to which deductions get cut.  The ad cites a Tax Policy Center study of the Romney plan that makes key assumptions in its assessments.  The study suggests Romney will not be able to meet his goal of revenue neutrality without raising taxes on middle income earners.  However, that doesn’t make raising taxes on middle income earners part of Romney’s plan.  At worst, it means the plan cannot succeed in meeting all its stated goals.

When the ad says taxes will go up on the middle class, the visual cites a Wall Street Journal story that in turn simply reports the findings of the same Tax Policy Center study.  The visual with the preceding claim cited the Tax Policy Center directly.  It’s a clever method for making a claim appear to have broader support than it has.

6)  Will Romney “voucherize” Medicare?  For prospective Medicare beneficiaries now under the age of 55, the Romney/Ryan plan would subsidize Medicare insurance coverage with a “premium support” approach modeled after the system for federal employees, though with growth of the support over time indexed less generously.  The plan does not use vouchers as the term is normally used.  Instead, beneficiaries would choose among a pool of qualifying plans and the premium support would automatically go directly to the participating insurance company.  The system is quite similar to the state exchanges encouraged under the Affordable Care Act signed by Mr. Obama.

7)  Catastrophic cuts to education?  The ad cites the Denver Post, and the phrase “catastrophic cuts” appears in an Oct. 19 editorial endorsing Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

The Post:


Romney’s approach is one of tax cuts for all, drastic Medicare reform, increased defense spending, and what would be catastrophic cuts to other discretionary programs. In the Republican primary, he said he couldn’t support a plan that included even $10 in cuts for every $1 in new revenue. To expect the country to balance its budget without additional revenue, in our view, is nothing short of fantasy.


Ignoring the Post‘s misrepresentation of Romney’s tax proposal, we refer the Post editors to the deficit numbers from the Bush administration.  After passing his tax cuts, the Bush administration was shrinking the budget deficit year by year after 2004 until the financial crisis of 2008 with its bailout expenses.  The key is stronger economic activity which in turn increases government revenue.  It’s reality, not fantasy.  The Denver Post offers no support for its judgment of “catastrophic cuts” to education spending, and in the company of such weak reasoning the claim can receive little credit.


The ad tries to damage Romney with a dubious character attack and a series of misleading statements.  Claims No. 1 and No. 2 are trivially true.  Claim No. 3 is almost certainly taken out of context.  Claim No. 4 is trivially true but misleads the audience about the number of jobs and their significance in terms of general business practice.  Claim No. 5 is false but if taken charitably may pass as making a point about doubts that Romney’s tax plan can deliver on its promises.  Claim No. 6 plays Mediscare with the word “voucher,” but if taken charitably hints at the valid point that the Romney plan promises higher out-of-pocket expenses for Medicare benefits for persons under age 55.  Claim No. 7 plucks scary language about education cuts from a newspaper editorial.  Romney has said he will not cut federal funding for education.


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