The president’s news conference . . . and readers respond on Pelosi’s debt chart

at 06:00 AM ET, 10/07/2011


(JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
In his news conference Thursday, President Obama unfortunately repeated a couple of stale talking points for which he had previously received Pinocchios.

 

“It is now up to all the senators, and hopefully all the members of the House, to explain to their constituencies why they would be opposed to common-sense ideas that historically have been supported by Democrats and Republicans in the past. . . . My expectation and hope is that everybody will vote for this jobs bill because it reflects those ideas that traditionally have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans.”

 As we wrote before, the truth is that Republicans have not supported many of the tax-revenue ideas at all — and on the spending side, key proposals have earned few Republican votes in the past. This claim was worth two Pinocchios, and Obama earns it again.

 

 

“We can afford it without affecting our deficit. Our proposal is paid for. So that can’t be the excuse.”

 This isn’t correct, except under Washington’s funhouse accounting. As we have noted before, the deficit would increase $303 billion more than anticipated in 2012. Obama can claim it is “paid for” because in theory the increased spending is matched by new revenue over a 10-year period. This claim was also worth two Pinocchios for the president.

 

But in other cases, we were pleased to hear the president tweak some of his previous language to make it more accurate.

“Some of you were with me when we visited a bridge between Ohio and Kentucky that’s been classified as ‘functionally obsolete.’ That’s a fancy way of saying it’s old and breaking down. We’ve heard about bridges in both states that are falling apart, and that’s true all across the country.”

 We had given the president three Pinocchios for suggesting that his jobs bill would help with the repairs — years from now — on the ailing Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio River. At his news conference, the president clearly decoupled his remarks about the bridge and the jobs bill, and made no suggestion that the bill would have anything to do with the bridge.

 

“We can either keep taxes exactly as they are for millionaires and billionaires, with loopholes that lead them to have lower tax rates in some cases than plumbers and teachers, or we can put teachers and construction workers and veterans back on the job.”

 We had looked askance at the president’s rhetoric on billionaires paying lower tax rates than plumbers and teachers, but this time the president added the phrase “in some cases,” making it much closer to the truth. As we noted earlier, this disparity is not a common occurrence.

***

 

Meanwhile, our examination of a bogus chart produced by Nancy Pelosi’s office on Obama’s role in the growing national debt generated many letters and e-mails. Most readers applauded us for exposing a truly misleading chart, but some readers took issue with our alternative way at looking at the growth of the national debt under various presidents.

Some believed it was unfair for each president to be tagged with the interest expenses of previous presidents’ debts; others argued that looking at the ratio of the debt to the gross domestic product unfairly penalized Obama because he is president during a recession.

Several readers did their own research and came up with their own alternative charts. As we stated, the national debt goes up (or in the case of Bill Clinton) down for a variety of reasons, and one can’t pin all of the blame (or credit) on the president.

We appreciate the hard work of our readers to correct what they viewed as our faulty reasoning — and wanted to share the fruits of some their interesting efforts. One of these charts still shows Obama in first position; the other has him just behind Reagan in terms of increasing the debt.

 

Alternative Chart #1

 In “The Fact Checker,” Kessler points out that public debt as a percentage of GDP is a more useful statistic for assessing our federal debt, and justifiably gave Moveon.org and Pelosi’s office a Four Pinocchio rating for their distortion regarding who is responsible for running up the federal debt. (Thank you for your Pinocchio Test; it is a great service to the reading public.)

However, Kessler’s numbers are also guilty of distortion. As he pointed out, Table 7.1 from the budget office’s historical tables are based on fiscal years (FY), which don’t align with presidential terms. It would seem more appropriate for the FY assignment to reflect the budgets for which the president is responsible (shifting the assignment by plus one year compared to Kessler).

Just as a relief pitcher is not held accountable for runners inherited on base when calculating his ERA, Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the budget imbalance he inherited from Bush, which contributed to a whopping 13.2 percent increase of the public debt in FY 2009. Nor should Bush be penalized by Obama’s 2009 ARRA stimulus bill, which contributed 10.4 percent to the debt ($787 billion net cost, according to Wikipedia).

Using these criteria, the debt growth would be (Kessler’s numbers in parentheses):

Reagan: +14.8% (+14.9 percentage points)

GHW Bush: +8.7% (+7.1)

Clinton: -16.8% (-13.4)

GW Bush: +10.6% (+5.6) for GW Bush

Obama: +15.9% (+24.6)

We are where we are, and the refined statistics reported here provide no excuse for either political party to gloat. For getting it mostly correct, Kessler gets only one Pinocchio.

— Philip Anfinrud

 

Alternative Chart #2

I’m a big fan of The Fact Checker and normally applaud your excellent work in getting to the facts behind the rhetoric.  However, your recent piece on the Obama debt chart appears to perhaps use some of the same sketchy math as that used by the creators of the chart.

I agree that the chart is misleading, but so is your analysis.

The biggest issue is choosing to use percentage of GDP as the debt measuring stick.  In some ways this is similar to the issue you point out about percentage issues getting smaller as the debt goes higher.  Obama inherited a recession, which by definition means that GDP hasn’t grown over his first two years (a decline in the first year and a small increase in the second for a total increase of 0.4 percent). 

By comparison, all of the other presidents enjoyed annual GDP growth rates of 5 percent to 8 percent, which means that the numerator in their calculation of GDP percentage is growing much faster than the one used for Obama.

Almost any measure is subject to manipulation.  It’s clearly unrealistic to use a measure that holds GDP flat over four or eight years.  However, it’s also unrealistic to measure Obama using only two years, especially when a significant portion of the debt increase in his first year was actually enacted by his predecessor.

Another measure that might be more informative is the dollar amount of the debt increase divided by the dollar amount of GDP at the end of each term.  That gets to your point about GDP being an indicator of the country’s ability to carry the debt but avoids the problem of trying to measure changes in percentages.  By that measure the numbers would be:

     

               debt increase*       end of term GDP*              increase

Reagan           $1,231                   $5,006                     25%

GHW Bush          881                   $6,242                    14%

Clinton                195                    $9,825                    2%

GW Bush          2,414                  $14,395                  17%

Obama               2,895                  $14,500                   20%

 (*in billions)

The {Pelosi] chart deserved a Pinocchio, but not four.  Reagan did increase the debt by a significant amount, Clinton is the only president in recent history to actually make progress in this area and Obama inherited a big chunk of what he’s being charged with.  The chart has the relative proportions wrong, and doesn’t give Clinton the credit he deserves, but it isn’t off by four Pinocchios.

— Doug Douglas

 

Alternative Chart #3

 

Finally, Emily Goff of the Heritage Foundation produced a chart this week that essentially looked at the increase in debt, as a percentage of GDP. Heritage, of course, can have a partisan flavor in its reports, which is apparent in her full analysis, but we like the idea of visually breaking up the results in four-year chunks.

 

 Feel free to comment on which approach you prefer.

Follow the Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

 

Cain’s dim view of Occupy Wall Street protesters

Fact Checker: Obama’s news conference Pinocchios

For Anita Hill, the Clarence Thomas hearings haven’t really ended

Perry disputes hunting camp story

Brown takes heat on comment about Warren

 
Read what others are saying

    About the Blogger

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

    Fact Check This!

    Help us keep an eye on public figures by sending us statements to fact check in one of the following ways: