One of Mitt Romney’s chief selling points as a presidential candidate is his business background and self-proclaimed ability to create jobs and boost a lagging economy -- a point frequently trotted out on the campaign trail in economically downtrodden swing states such as Ohio.
Yet, Romney’s record from his days as Massachusetts governor paints a different portrait, that of a politician who swept into office with big promises and a Harvard MBA but who failed to create a meaningful number of jobs for his home state and lacked a clear, concrete economic vision.
Economists from Massachusetts also say Romney was never able to solve the structural problems inherent in the state’s economy — issues that now plague the country as a whole and will challenge whoever becomes president in 2013 -- such as the decline in manufacturing and the dearth of employment for less-educated, low-income workers.
“There is nothing in his record as governor that shows he knows how to address economic failures,” says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. “The thing that’s bothered me most about the Romney campaign is this major distortion of his record.”
When Gov. Romney took office in January 2003, the state was reeling from the rise and fall of the tech bubble in the early 2000s -- a particularly tough blow for Massachusetts, heavy with top-notch biotechnology companies and tech start-ups. These were conditions that Romney inherited, along with an unemployment rate of 5.6 percent. Over the course of Romney’s term, the state’s unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent.
Yet, look closer at the actual number of jobs created over that time period, and a decidedly less positive picture emerges. By 2007, the state had created roughly 45,800 new jobs, according to federal data, and that’s during a period the Romney camp spins as a time of economic recovery. Manufacturing employment in Massachusetts declined by more than 14 percent, according to Sum’s research, and the unemployment rate would have been much higher, local economists say, were it not for the droves of young college graduates and residents who left the state to live in lower-cost areas.
“I’m not sure another governor could have done better,” says Michael J. Widmer, president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a not-for-profit group that analyzes the state’s economic and fiscal policies. “But, Romney is campaigning as a job creator.”
The Romney campaign sticks to its Massachusetts job-creation narrative, highlighting the banner number of the unemployment rate as evidence of the candidate’s economic chops. "Mitt Romney spent 25 years as an entrepreneur and businessman in the real-world economy,” campaign spokesman Andrea Saul said in a written statement. “As governor he confronted an economy very similar to Obama's economy: high unemployment and no job creation. Under his leadership and economic reforms the Massachusetts unemployment rate went from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent.”
When the national unemployment numbers come out the first Friday of most months, the Romney camp usually sends out releases bashing President Obama's record on job creation. On Friday, as the data underscored a strengthening job market, the Romney camp followed script, criticizing the president for an unemployment rate still sitting above 8 percent.
“This president has not succeeded, this president has failed – and that’s the reason we’re going to get rid of him in 2012,” the Romney campaign wrote in an email.
Apart from squabbling over the number of jobs created versus the unemployment rate, Massachusetts-based economists say Romney did not put in place a successful economic development strategy, a task the next president will face on a much grander scale, as the federal government tries to keep and create jobs in the U.S.
“I don’t think he had any noticeable plan for moving the state economy forward,” says David Tuerck, executive director of the Beacon Hill Institute, a research center that leans right. “The state economy recovered due to the strength of our labor force and the fact that we have a strong high-tech sector, venture capital, and teaching hospitals.”
Heading into 2013, the federal government cannot hope the U.S. labor force will just right itself like some sailboat coming out a storm. The recovery of the auto industry required both the investment of capital and time on the part of the federal government, and the $800 billion stimulus, despite what its detractors say, added thousands, if not millions of jobs to the economy.
The Romney governorship in Massachusetts did have some economic wins worth mentioning, including convincing Bristol-Myers Squibb to move to a former military base in Devens, Mass. The governor also created a program to court local businesses to encourage them to stay in the state -- a program that Romney’s former top economic guy, Ranch Kimball, says created a pipeline of jobs for the state.
“We talked to the business and figured out what we should do,” Kimball says by phone. “Romney is very focused in understanding what it takes for companies to succeed.”
That may be true, but if the former executive wants to win over the American public for the general election, he will have to convince them that he knows how to help workers succeed, too.