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Fact-checking the 2012 State of the Union speech

at 01:45 AM ET, 01/25/2012

A State of the Union address is often difficult to fact-check, no matter who is president. The speech is a product of many hands and is carefully vetted, so major errors of fact are so relatively rare that they sometimes can become big news (think of George W. Bush’s “sixteen little words” about Iraq seeking uranium in Niger). At the same time, State of the Union addresses are very political speeches, an argument for the president’s policies, so context (or the perspective of opponents) is often missing.

Here is a guide through some of President Obama’s more fact-challenged claims, in the order in which he made them. As is our practice with live events, we do not award Pinocchio rankings, which are reserved for complete columns.

“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq. For the first time in two decades, Osama bin Laden is not a threat to this country. Most of al Qaeda’s top lieutenants have been defeated. The Taliban’s momentum has been broken, and some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.”

The killing of bin Laden, which Obama used to open and close his speech, is an achievement that few partisans would quibble with. But the story about Iraq and Afghanistan is much more muddled.

Yes, U.S. troops have left Iraq, in part because the Obama administration was unwilling or unable — take your pick — to extend a security agreement with Iraq. Since the U.S. departure, Iraq has descended into violence as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has targeted Sunni opposition figures. The country at times appears to teeter on the edge of a new outbreak of sectarian violence.

Meanwhile, the president’s claim that the Taliban’s “momentum has been broken” is a highly debatable claim. U.S. intelligence agencies, for instance, recently concluded in a secret assessment that the war in Afghanistan “is mired in stalemate” and that security gains from an increase in American troops “have been undercut by pervasive corruption, incompetent governance and Taliban fighters operating from neighboring Pakistan,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Other U.S. officials have dissented from the report’s conclusions, but the dispute is an indication of how fragile any momentum may be.

“In the six months before I took office, we lost nearly four million jobs. And we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect. Those are the facts. But so are these. In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s. Together, we’ve agreed to cut the deficit by more than $2 trillion. And we’ve put in place new rules to hold Wall Street accountable, so a crisis like that never happens again.”

Here, Obama tries to inoculate himself from the inevitable charge by the eventual GOP presidential nominee that he has the worst job-creation record of any president since World War II. (Let us stipulate that all of these job-creation claims are fairly bogus, given how every president is at the mercy of the business cycle, but it appears to be central to our politics.)

As Obama noted, some 4 million jobs were lost at the start of his administration, putting him in a deep hole if he wants to show positive job growth in his presidency. But the nearly $1 trillion stimulus was passed into law in February, and so the carefully phrased claim of “we lost another four million before our policies were in full effect” is a stretch.

That’s because it took a full nine months to run up 4 million in job losses, some eight months after the stimulus was passed into law — and some four months after the official end of the recession, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. (The 4 million in losses before Obama took office occurred in the previous nine months, not six months as the president stated.)

Trying to change the focus from his overall job-creation record, the president focuses on private-sector jobs created since the recession ended. Those numbers are largely right, but they are relatively anemic given the depths of the recession. (Note that he describes a loss of 8 million jobs and then mentions a gain of only three million.)

Obama does not mention that Republicans forced him to accept $2 trillion in budget cuts during the debt-ceiling impasse. And he says “we’ve put in place” new rules on Wall Street, glossing over the fact that it had little Republican support and the GOP candidates have all vowed to repeal the Dodd-Frank law.

“We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits. … It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: No bailouts, no handouts and no copouts.”

These are clearly lines crafted by political operatives. Few economists would blame “outsourcing” for the economic crisis; it is also unclear how Obama has eliminated outsourcing during his presidency. “Bad debts” presumably would refer to irresponsible mortgage loans. “Phony financial profits” is also a bit puzzling. Perhaps it was not supposed to make sense.

The same goes for the other catch-phrase, uttered a bit later in the speech. The president, of course, supported massive bailouts before and after he took office, as will be demonstrated by the next quote.

“On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.”

Here the president appears to celebrate a bailout, which actually was started under his predecessor George W. Bush. The claim that “some” wanted the auto industry to die is a bit of a straw man, though Obama appears to be really aiming at Mitt Romney’s call at the time for the auto industry to go through a pre-packaged bankruptcy, which Democratic attack ads have turned into heartless-sounding proposal. (Ford, incidentally, did not accept a bailout.)

Some 200,000 auto workers were laid off during the recession, bringing the industry to a low of 550,000 workers; forecasts suggest it will climb back to the pre-recession level by 2015.

“A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. Today, for the first time in fifteen years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity.”

This is true. An interesting article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel this month explains that costs in China have risen because of labor unrest, higher shipping rates — and weakening of the yuan against the dollar because of political pressure by the United States.

“Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right — eight years. Not only that — last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.”

The first statement is a great statistic but not especially noteworthy because there has not been much change in the annual barrels produced in the United States since 2003; it essentially has been steady though it is slightly higher now than in previous years, according to the Energy Information Administration. Production is projected to increase in coming years.

The second claim made it into Obama’s first campaign ad, and as we have noted, it is lacking context. The Energy Department cited a host of reasons why foreign oil imports have declined, noting the main reason was “a significant contraction in consumption” because of the poor economy and changes in efficiency that began “two years before the 2008 crisis” — ie, before Obama took office.

“Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.”

This is fanciful budget math. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were funded with borrowed money, so what Obama is really asking for is an increase in domestic spending relative to the Pentagon. The United States is still running huge deficits, so none of this imagined savings would “pay down the debt” until the United States once again began running surpluses. Instead, his proposal would continue to add to the debt.

“Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households.”

The president, making his case for higher taxes on the wealthy, framed this better than the line in his Kansas City speech that earned him Three Pinocchios, but he is still making a broad claim on a narrow set of facts.

Most wealthy people pay a higher tax rate than most less-wealthy Americans, but there are always going to be some exceptions. The Congressional Research Service found that among millionaires, the average tax rate is almost 30 percent. But some 94, 500 millionaires —one quarter — do face a tax rate that is lower than 10.4 million moderate-income tax payers.

“That’s why our health care law relies on a reformed private market, not a government program.”

Obama spent surprisingly little time in the speech defending his signature health care law, but he left out part of the story with this statement. About half of the 34 million people who will receive coverage under the new law will be placed on Medicaid, a federal-state government program for low-income Americans, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. The rest of the newly insured would get coverage through private markets.

“Through the power of our diplomacy, a world that was once divided about how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program now stands as one.”

This is a more hopeful statement than the actual reality. The Obama administration has won U.N. approval for new sanctions, and just this week the European Union joined in an embargo of Iranian oil imports. But there are other key nations, in particular China, that have resisted a broad crackdown on trade with Tehran. There is also little evidence that the sanctions have had much effect in slowing Iranian nuclear ambitions.

“Our iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.”

Obama has had tense relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially over peace talks with the Palestinians, but military cooperation has been one bright spot in the relationship. Still, the fact that the president could not even mention peace with the Palestinians in this speech suggests how much his dream of achieving a peace deal has faded.

“Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about. That’s not the message we get from leaders around the world, all of whom are eager to work with us. That’s not how people feel from Tokyo to Berlin; from Cape Town to Rio; where opinions of America are higher than they’ve been in years.”

Obama’s self-congratulatory tone aside, the most striking thing about this list is that it does not include any cities in the Islamic world. Obama had made a high-profile speech in Cairo in 2009 designed to bolster the U.S. image; judging by recent polling, his effort has been a failure.

The Pew Research Center in May said that both the U.S. favorability rating and confidence in Obama had fallen sharply since 2009. In Turkey, a NATO ally, for instance, the confidence in Obama fell from 33 percent in 2009 to 11 percent in 2011; in Jordan, another key ally, the favorability rating for the United States fell from 25 percent in 2009 to 13 percent in 2011.

Numbers had even fallen in Indonesia, where Obama had lived for some years as a child. The survey said that Obama’s handling of the political change spawned by the Arab Spring was a key factor in the slumping numbers.

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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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