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Fact-checking Michele Bachmann’s announcement speech and Sunday interviews

at 06:19 AM ET, 06/28/2011


(CHARLIE RIEDEL/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
“Of course a person has to be careful with statements that they make. I think that's true. And I think now there will be an opportunity to be able to speak fully on the issues. I look forward to that.”

— Rep. Michele Bachmann, responding to a question about being “a flake” on “Fox News Sunday,” June 26, 2011

 

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who on Monday formally announced her candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, is a terrific public speaker with a long history of playing fast and loose with the facts. (For a list of our recent articles on Bachmann’s statements, click here.)

 Monday’s address, given in Waterloo, Iowa, was mostly a vision statement, with only a few assertions worth double-checking. We will take a look of those — as well as more  dubious statements she made on the Sunday morning news shows in advance of her speech.

Announcement speech, June 27

 “Five decades ago in America, we had less debt than we have today. We had $300 billion or less in debt. A gallon of gasoline was 31 cents and owning a home was part of the American dream. Today, that debt stands at over $14 trillion. A gallon of gas is outrageously expensive and unfortunately, too many millions of Americans know what it is to have a home that's in foreclosure.”

Context matters a lot when you use numbers. In this case, Bachmann creates a false impression by using figures from a half-century ago without adjusting for inflation or other factors. 

So, 31 cents in 1961 actually translates to about $2.25 in today’s dollars. That’s still cheaper than a gallon of gas today — about $3.64 nationwide — but not 10 times cheaper.

There’s a similar problem with Bachmann’s reference to $300 billion in national debt. That sounds puny compared to today’s $14 trillion in debt, but the right way to measure debt is as a percentage of the gross domestic product, which is the broadest measure of the nation’s economy.

According to the historical tables of the White House budget office (table 7.1), $300 billion was 55 percent of GDP in 1961.

 As of June 23, the total debt was $14.34 trillion, according to the Treasury Department debt meter. Meanwhile, the gross domestic product, as of March 31, was $15.02 trillion, according to the Commerce Department. That’s a ratio of 96 percent, which is certainly pretty bad, but again, not as dramatic a difference as Bachmann suggested.

 In both of these cases, Bachmann could have made valid points about gasoline prices and the debt without resorting to using out-of-context figures.

 

 “And we can't afford four more years of a foreign policy with a president who leads from behind and who doesn't stand up for our friends like Israel, and who too often fails to stand against our enemies.”

 

Bachmann barely touched on foreign policy in her speech, and she does not really explain her comment on Israel. Bachmann has mischaracterized Obama’s position on Israel in the past. Obama has certainly had tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over the strategy for peace talks with the Palestinians, but at the same time both countries say security and military ties have never been closer.

 

“In February 2009, President Obama was very confident that his economic policies would turn the country around within a year.
He said, and I quote, ‘A year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition.’ Well, Mr. President, your policies haven't worked. Spending our way out of the recession hasn't worked. And so Mr. President, we take you at your word.”

 

 This quote is from an interview that President Obama had with NBC News about two weeks after taking office. But Bachmann leaves out a few crucial words that undercut her claim that he was “very confident” that his policies would turn around the country “within a year.”

 Here’s is Obama’s full statement, with the missing words in bold: "A year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress, but there is still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

 

 Bachmann on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” June 26

 

“No, I haven't misled people at all. I think the question would be asked of President Obama, when you told the American people that, if we borrow $1 trillion from other countries and spend it on a stimulus, that we won't have unemployment go above 8 percent, and today, as we are sitting here, it's 9.1 percent and the economy is tanking — that is what's serious. That's a very serious statement that the president made.”

 

Host Bob Schieffer challenged Bachmann’s history of misstatements in the past — citing, alas, our friends at Politifact — and strangely enough, she responded with yet another misleading statement.

 The president never made any statement  suggesting that the stimulus legislation — which totaled about $800 billion, not $1 trillion — would prevent unemployment from going up beyond 8 percent. Bachmann is referring to a projection issued Jan. 9, 2009 — before Obama even took the oath of office — by two aides: Christina Romer, the nominee to head the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, an incoming economic adviser to Vice President-elect Biden.

The 14-page report thus was not an official government assessment, nor even an analysis of an actual plan that had passed Congress. Instead, it was an attempt to assess the impact of a possible $775 billion stimulus package and what difference it would make compared to doing nothing. The president-elect had articulated a goal of passing a plan that would “save or create 3 million jobs by the end of 2010.”

Page 5 of the report included a chart that showed that unemployment would peak at 8 percent in 2009, compared to 9 percent in 2010 if nothing was done. But the report also contained numerous caveats and warnings because, after all, it was merely a projection. At the time, other economists had similar forecasts — Romer and Bernstein were in the mid-range — but the economy turned out to be in deeper trouble than most people thought.

 In any case, Obama never said that.

"It’s ironic and sad that the president released all of the oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve because the president doesn’t have an energy policy."

This is a huge overstatement. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve has 727 million barrels of oil, and the Obama administration announced last week that the U.S. will release 30 million barrels of oil from the reserve. (Another 30 million barrels will be released by European countries.)

So she’s off by a factor of 25.

“Under Barack Obama the last two years, the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased 73 percent in two years.”

 

This assertion elicited a chuckle from Schieffer, who questioned whether this really amounts to much money. Bachmann’s statistic comes from a report by iwatch news, a Web site from the Center on Public Integrity, but the full article provides a lot of context missing from Bachmann’s statement.

For instance, much of the increase came in Obama’s first eight months in office, so the purchases could have reflected requests made by the Bush administration.

Another problem is that the General Services Administration says the numbers are not reliable because the term “limousine” is not defined and so it could include protective duty vehicles- — not fancy cars to ferry what Bachmann called “bureaucrats.”

 

Bachmann on “Fox News Sunday,” June 26

 

“What I want to do is to make sure that that we fully repeal ‘Obamacare.’ This will be one of the largest spending initiatives we will ever see in our country, and also it will take away choice from the American people. It will hurt senior citizens, because Obama took away $500 billion, as you say, from Medicare and will transfer it to younger people in ‘Obamacare.’ ”

Host Chris Wallace, who later apologized for suggesting that Bachmann was “a flake,” tried to engage Bachmann on the question of how she could complain about cuts in anticipated growth of Medicare spending in the new health care law when the new House Republican budget largely adopts those very same cuts, but she kept dodging his question.

We have examined this issue before, giving Bachmann two Pinocchios for suggesting seniors who suffer at the hands of the youth. As we wrote: “It’s rather rich for Republicans to complain about $500 billion in supposed cuts to Medicare that they themselves would retain, even under the cover of helping Medicare.”

“But even worse, the Congressional Budget Office is saying that we will lose 800,000 jobs with ‘Obamacare’. When we're in a situation now, where we have massive job loss, this is not what we want to do with ‘Obamacare.’ ”

Bachmann once again repeated this 800,000 job claim, another issue we have repeatedly tried to clarify. However, she does better than she did in the recent GOP debate, when she said the health care law would “kill 800,00 jobs.” This time, she said, the economy would “lose 800,000,” which is technically correct but is not necessarily a bad thing.

The Congressional Budget Office last August estimated that the new health care law over the next decade would reduce the number of overall workers in the United States by one-half of one percent. The CBO did not use a number, but that estimate effectively translates into 800,000 people.

(Note: Bachmann’s use of the word “massive” to describe a figure that is just one-half of one percent is a bit absurd.)

 In dry economic language, the CBO essentially said that some people who are now in the workforce because they need health insurance would decide to stop working because the health care law guaranteed they would have access to health care. (As an example, think of someone who is 63, a couple of years before retirement, who is still in a job only because he or she is waiting to get on Medicare at age 65.)

 These jobs would disappear, not to be replaced, so there is an intellectually defensible argument that one could make that this is bad for the economy; others, however, might argue that this is a small price worth paying for universal health care. 

 We realize that this is difficult concept for non-economists to grasp. Many readers have written wondering why new, younger workers would not fill those jobs, but the CBO maintains that the number of overall jobs in the United States would shrink. In any case, politicians shouldn’t be tossing around this figure — this is really a rather vague prediction of something that might happen in the future.

 

The Pinocchio Test

 Bachmann’s announcement speech had relatively minor transgressions, factwise, but she did worse in her pre-announcement interviews. We are pleased to see she has modified her language on the 800,000 jobs — though this stale talking point should be dropped altogether — but she erred badly on her assertion about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. She needs to figure out how to eliminate the use of hyperbole — such as “massive” or “all” — from her vocabulary.

On a blended basis, she is getting two Pinocchios, but that’s only because we do not use 1/2 Pinocchios.

 Two Pinocchios

 

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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