Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney on Thursday backtracked on a central theme of his presidential campaign: that President Obama has made a struggling U.S. economy even worse.
"I didn't say that things are worse," Romney said at a press conference in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The comments came in response to a question from an NBC producer who asked the putative front-runner for the Republican nomination to explain his factually inaccurate statements on the campaign trail about the struggling U.S. economy.
During last month's Republican debate in New Hampshire, Romney said Mr. Obama "didn't create the recession, but he made it worse and longer."
Economic growth is considered by economists to be the best overall measure of the economy's performance, and the data clearly show a fragile economy that was falling off a cliff a couple years ago. In the last three months of 2008, just before Mr. Obama took office, the U.S. economy contracted at a 6.8 percent annualized pace, according to the Commerce Department.
In the first three months of 2009, which includes Mr. Obama's January 20, 2009 inauguration, the economy contracted at a 4.9 percent pace. The economy grew at a 1.9 percent annualized rate in the first three months of this year after growing at a 3.1 percent pace in the three months through last December.
And job growth, which is even more important for most voters, shows a similar story: weak but better than it was. The economy lost 820,000 jobs in January 2009 and continued to lose jobs every month through early 2010. Job creation in mid-2010 see-sawed between growth and loss until October, when there were 171,000 jobs created. The economy has added at least some jobs every month since, though just 54,000 jobs were added in May, the most recent month for which data is available.
These numbers are by no means stellar, but they clearly paint a picture that shows improvement from a very weak starting point. The unemployment rate, which economists consider a so-called lagging indicator, started at 7.8 percent when Mr. Obama took office and peaked at 10.1 percent in October 2009. In May, the Labor Department reported the unemployment rate at 9.1 percent, still considered too high by most economists.
And it was not just the one comment at the New Hampshire debate. Romney has made the "Obama made it worse" line a theme of his nascent campaign. On Monday in New Hampshire, Romney said "the president's failed. He did not cause this recession, but he made it worse."
Until Thursday in Pennsylvania. When he backtracked.
"I did not say that things were worse, what I said was that the economy hasn't turned around, that you have 20 million Americans out of work or seriously unemployed," Romney said in response to producer Sue Kroll's question.
There were 13.9 million unemployed Americans in May, according the Labor Department, though an additional 10 million or so Americans are considered underemployed.
The former head of Bain Capital said the economy would be his top priority if he were in the White House.
"I can assure voters that if I were president of the United States I would spend every waking moment doing what I could to get Americans back to work," Romney said.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the former governor would continue to attack Mr. Obama's economic record."President Obama and the Democrats will spend the next 17 months trying to distract voters from their horrible record on the economy - and it's not going to work," Saul said in an prepared statement emailed Friday to CBS News, "it is an undeniable fact that Barack Obama has failed to create jobs and fix the economy."