Fact-checking Obama’s speech

September 7, 2012

President Obama acknowledges the crowd before giving his nomination acceptance speech during the final night of the 2012 Democratic National Convention. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

President Obama's big moment came tonight as he accepted the Democratic nomination for reelection in Charlotte. But did his assertions check out? The Wonkteam looked into it.

TRUE - By 2008, we had seen nearly a decade in which families struggled with costs that kept rising but paychecks that didn’t; racking up more and more debt just to make the mortgage or pay tuition; to put gas in the car or food on the table.

Census Data suggests that median household income fell by $1,005 between 1998 and 2008, when you adjust for inflation. So Obama's claim checks out there. Here's what consumer credit looks like from 1998 to 2008:

As Obama said, it grew considerably.

TRUE - Now, I’ve cut taxes for those who need it – middle-class families and small businesses.

Obama has indeed cut taxes on 95 percent of Americans, and, among many other initiatives, passed the HIRE Act which cut taxes on small businesses who hire and retain workers.

DEBATABLE - But I don’t believe that another round of tax breaks for millionaires will bring good jobs to our shores, or pay down our deficit.

It's almost certainly true that high-income tax breaks do not raise growth enough to pay for themselves in deficit terms. But do they help growth period? That's debatable. On capital gains taxes in particular, economists disagree about whether having low rates spur investment and thus growth, even if those rates disproportionately affect low-income people. Some, like Nobel laureate Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, have argued that high marginal tax rates in general do not harm growth. Berkeley's Christina Romer has conducted research that suggests there are some positive effects on growth of cuts in marginal tax rates, but that these effects are fairly mild. Harvard's Marty Feldstein, by contrast, has argued that higher marginal tax rates are associated with lower growth.

TRUE - I don’t believe that firing teachers or kicking students off financial aid will grow the economy, or help us compete with the scientists and engineers coming out of China.

The evidence suggests that cutting education is extremely bad for long-run growth, as it leads to higher class sizes which in turn depress students' lifetime wages. The cuts during the recession have been estimated by the Brookings Institution's Hamilton Project to cost almost $100 billion in future earnings by students.

TRUE WITH A BUT - I’ve worked with business leaders who are bringing jobs back to America – not because our workers make less pay, but because we make better products.  Because we work harder and smarter than anyone else.

Obama did indeed hold an "insourcing" forum earlier this year devoted to businesses who move jobs back to the US. But the focus on this can be misleading because, as James K. Jackson of the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, there is no evidence to suggest that outsourcing or insourcing has much of an effect on the overall rate of employment.

TRUE WITH A BUT - I’ve signed trade agreements that are helping our companies sell more goods to millions of new customers – goods that are stamped with three proud words:  Made in America.

Obama did sign three free trade agreements last year, with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama. But he has not negotiated new ones, and those three deals were held up for the first years of his term, in part due to Obama's demands that they be accompanied by adjustment assistance for workers displaced by trade. The Doha round of WTO negotiations has also stagnated under Obama, to the dismay of international development specialists who wanted him to push harder to eliminate restrictions on poor countries.

TRUE - After a decade of decline, this country created over half a million manufacturing jobs in the last two and a half years.

True when Bill Clinton said it last night, true now.

TRUE - After thirty years of inaction, we raised fuel standards so that by the middle of the next decade, cars and trucks will go twice as far on a gallon of gas.

Again, stated by Clinton, and correct: the Obama administration has doubled fuel efficiency standards.

TRUE WITH A (GOOD) BUT -  We’ve doubled our use of renewable energy, and thousands of Americans have jobs today building wind turbines and long-lasting batteries.

As Michael Grunwald pointed out on Twitter, this way undersells what happened to green energy under Obama. Wind energy doubled, but solar grew over 600 percent. 85,000 Americans work in wind energy, and in 2010, 5,918 people worked on battery production for electric cars and other renewable energy projects.

TRUE WITH A (GOOD) BUT - In the last year alone, we cut oil imports by one million barrels a day – more than any administration in recent history.

Here's how crude oil imports look since the 1980s:


Source: Energy Information Agency

Under Obama they've gone down by 2.45 million barrels a day, using the most recent figures. As with solar energy, Obama actually undersells the numbers here. By contrast, under Reagan they went up by about 1.4 million barrels a day, 751,000 under Bush I, 2.76 million under Clinton, and 1.1 million under Bush II. Obama is the only recent president to cut imports.

TRUE WITH A BUT - And today, the United States of America is less dependent on foreign oil than at any time in nearly two decades.


That's true if you include all energy sources. As Brad has noted, natural gas production and domestic oil production are booming so the US is getting very close to energy independence in coming decades. But if you look at just oil, the case is trickier. The US has definitely made strides under Obama, but 20 years ago the gap between domestic oil production and imports was less than it is today:

TRUE - We’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration in the last three years, and we’ll open more.

The Obama administration has opened additional land for oil and gas exploration. In January, the Department of Interior announced a deal to lease 38 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico for oil exploration.

TRUE - For the first time in a generation, nearly every state has answered our call to raise their standards for teaching and learning.

This refers to Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s biggest K-12 education policy. That program aimed to bring more uniformity to teaching standards across the country. Here’s how our colleague Michael Fletcher put it in 2010: “48 states and the District...joined in an effort to develop a common core of rigorous educational standards to replace the current system in which states have wildly different benchmarks for what should be taught in school.”

No Child Left Behind, a policy developed under Pres. George W. Bush, also encouraged more standardization in teacher evaluations. Academics were concerned, however, that the structure of the program could encourage schools to develop standards that were weaker rather than more rigorous.

TRUE - Millions of students are paying less for college today because we finally took on a system that wasted billions of taxpayer dollars on banks and lenders.

An executive order last year reduced the amount of discretionary income that students would be required to pay on student loan debt.

TRUE WITH A BUT - “And while my opponent would spend more money on military hardware that our Joint Chiefs don’t even want, I’ll use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work – rebuilding roads and bridges; schools and runways.”

The Department of Defense’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2013 was indeed below what Romney said he’d spend. But whether the DoD’s Joint Chiefs of Staff would have wanted more money than they requested, if they were encouraged to do so under a different administration, is a different question.

It’s true that Obama’s jobs plan would entail more investment in infrastructure and schools.

TRUE - “After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars...”

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost more than $1.37 trillion, according to the National Priorities Project. Over 6,500 US service members have died in the wars.

TRUE - Independent analysis shows that my plan would cut our deficits by $4 trillion.  Last summer, I worked with Republicans in Congress to cut $1 trillion in spending...

According to the CBO, the Obama budget reduces the deficit relative to current policy from $10.9 trillion over ten years to $6.3 trillion, a reduction of $4.6 trillion. But those figures include some measures, such as war savings, that other analysts don't want to count as a real deficit reduction.

MISLEADING  - I want to reform the tax code so that it’s simple,fair, and asks the wealthiest households to pay higher taxes on incomes over $250,000 – the same rate we had when Bill Clinton was president....

It’s true that Obama has proposed to let the Bush tax cuts expire for incomes over $250,000, bringing them back to Clinton-era rates. However, his plan would also preserve the Bush tax cuts for all income below that threshold -- that is, the first $250,000 that anyone makes, even their total income is above it, as Ezra explains. Obama also proposes changes to deductions and other parts of the tax cuts that would also raise tax rates for the wealthy, above what they were paying under Clinton. So while the individual rate for income over $250,000 would return to pre-Bush levels, the overall tax rate for these wealthy individuals would be higher than what they were paying before.

TRUE - “...when Bill Clinton was president, the same rate we had when our economy created nearly 23 million new jobs, the biggest surplus in history, and a lot of millionaires to boot.”

During the Clinton years, 22.7 million jobs were created, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The largest surplus in history was $236 billion in fiscal year 2000, when Clinton was still in office, although the raw numbers aren’t always the best measure over time.

TRUE - You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage.  You did that.

This refers to Zoe Lyhn, the 3-year-old girl featured in a video on the first night of the Democratic condition. The Affordable Care Act ended lifetime limits on coverage a provision estimated to affect 105 million Americans with private insurance coverage.

TRUE - You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home.

This refers to Obama's executive order stopping deportations for illegal immigrants who grew up here. While the legal status of such immigrants is nebulous, especially if Romney wins, the claim here is essentially correct.

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Ezra Klein · September 6, 2012