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 relatively rare. But State of the Union addresses often are very political speeches, an argument for the president’s policies, so context is sometimes missing.
Here is a guide through some of President Obama’s most interesting claims, in the order in which he made them. There are some statements we are still checking and so will publish additional information in the coming days. As is our practice with live events, we do not award Pinocchio rankings, which are reserved for complete columns.
“Over the past five years, our businesses have created more than 11 million new jobs.”
The low point in jobs was reached in February 2010, and there has indeed been a gain of more than 11 million private-sector jobs since then, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Note that the president carefully referred to “businesses,” as in the same period the number of federal, state and local government jobs has actually declined by more than 500,000. So adding in government jobs slightly reduces the total number of new nonfarm jobs to 10.7 million jobs.
While Obama has touted what he often calls the “longest stretch of uninterrupted private sector job growth” in U.S. history, the average number of jobs created in this period is significantly lower than under either Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan. (When you exclude a single month of decline, in fact, Clinton and Reagan had streaks of 85 and 71 months, respectively.)
Still, the president finally has some bragging rights about the state of the economy. With the rate of job creation averaging almost 250,000 jobs a month in 2014, this is the first State of the Union address given by Obama in which the number of jobs in the United States is actually higher than when the recession began in December 2007. Even with the massive jobs losses at the start of his presidency, Obama can claim that nearly 6.4 million jobs were added since he took office. At this point in George W. Bush’s presidency, the comparable number was 4.5 million – and for Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the figure was 18 million and 9.4 million, respectively.
“Thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.”
This looks like a big number, but it comes out of the Short-Term Energy Outlook published this month by the Energy Information Administration: “The average household is now expected to spend about $750 less for gasoline in 2015 compared with last year because of lower prices.”
Although that report did not specifically cite Obama’s fuel-efficiency standards, a December EIA report (predicting an annual savings of $550) said “lower fuel expenditures are attributable to a combination of falling retail gasoline prices and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks that reduce the number of gallons used to travel a given distance.”
“Today, our younger students have earned the highest math and reading scores on record. Our high school graduation rate has hit an all-time high. And more Americans finish college than ever before.”
In his statement on “younger students,” Obama likely is referring to the National Assessment of Educational Progress report on fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math scores.
The Nation’s Report Card, released in 2013, showed improvement in national math and reading tests administered by the federal government every two years. The 2013 reading score was the highest among all previous assessments for students in eighth grade. For fourth-graders, the 2013 reading score was the highest out of all previous years except for 2011. Still, the biennial increases in fourth- and eighth-grade students’ reading and math scores during Obama’s administration have been incremental.
For high school graduation rates, Obama’s claim is on point. The data on average public high school graduation and dropout rates are collected by the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. For the class of 2011-2012, 81 percent of public high school students graduated. It was the highest percentage of high school graduates since 1995. The geographical breakdown shows 22 states had a graduation rate of 80 percent or higher, and another 22 states had a graduation rate of 70 to 79.9 percent. Seven states had a graduation rate of less than 70 percent. U.S. high school dropout rates reached record lows, according to the Pew Research Center.
As our colleague Lyndsey Layton pointed out, the high school graduation rate is just one measure of success. Despite the high percentages in the report, there were disparities in graduation rates based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity.
When it comes to college graduation rates, however, there is some context missing in his statement. Obama said “more Americans finish college than ever before.” Education Department data show a steady increase in graduation rates for first-time, full-time bachelor’s-degree-seeking students at four-year colleges, from the class of 1996 to the class of 2006.
However, recent studies show an increase in the number of students graduating in six years rather than four. Graduating in six years is more expensive for students and adds to their debt. In addition, the Education Department records do not take into consideration a separate category of students: transfer students. — Michelle Ye Hee Lee
“Forty-three million workers have no paid sick leave — 43 million.”
This statistic comes from Labor Department survey released in September, which found that 39 percent of 109 million private sector workers were not given paid sick leave. That adds up to 43 million workers.
“Our deficits cut by two-thirds”
The improvement in the economy, coupled with the spending cuts in the sequester, has yielded a significantly lower deficit than just a few years ago. The deficit for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 was $483 billion, a decline of nearly $200 billion from the year before.
For economists, raw numbers mean less than the percentage of the gross domestic product, and here, too, there has been an improvement. As a percentage of the GDP, the deficit in fiscal year 2014 was 2.8 percent, the lowest level since 2007. For fiscal year 2009, when Obama took office, the deficit was 9.8 percent, so that’s a 71 percent reduction.
Interestingly, Obama’s 2010 budget, introduced in 2009 when deficits were soaring, predicted that the deficit in 2014 would be $535 billion and 2.9 percent of GDP — meaning the administration beat its five-year deficit target.
“Thanks to a growing economy, the recovery is touching more and more lives. Wages are finally starting to rise again. We know that more small-business owners plan to raise their employees’ pay than at any time since 2007.”
A December 2014 survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses reported the highest Small Business Optimism Index since October 2006. The survey found a seasonally adjusted net 17 percent of businesses planned to raise wages in coming months – a two-percentage-point increase from the previous month. Three percent of businesses reported reductions in worker compensation, compared with 24 percent that reported a boost in compensation. The net 25 percent of businesses reporting higher wages was up four percentage points from the previous month.
But it is too early to say that this positive response from small businesses means “wages are finally starting to rise again.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the seasonally adjusted average hourly earnings in December 2014 for all businesses was $24.57 – just 40 cents higher than December 2013. Average weekly earnings between December 2013 and December 2014 increased by 2.5 percent. However, the median weekly earnings between third-quarter 2013 and third-quarter 2014 remained flat. — Michelle Ye Hee Lee
“Since 2010, America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan and all advanced economies combined.”
Once again, the president relies on a data point from 2010; after all, in 2009, the United States was shedding hundreds of thousands of jobs a month in the early days of his presidency. He also uses a somewhat unusual phrase — “advanced economies” — because he is relying on an International Monetary Fund listing of “advanced economies” that includes some entities, such as Hong Kong, that are not considered independent countries. But it does not include such fast-growing nations as China.
But under that specific data set, Obama is right. From the first quarter of 2010 through the second quarter of 2014, the United States created 7.5 million new jobs — compared with 7.4 million in the other advanced economies.
“Our manufacturers have added almost 800,000 new jobs.”
The low point for manufacturing jobs was reached in January 2010, and there has been a gain of 786,000 jobs since then. But Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of manufacturing jobs is still more than 300,000 fewer than when Obama took office in the depths of the recession — and 1.5 million fewer than when the recession began in December 2007.
“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership — including our military power — is stopping ISIL’s advance.”
The president can certainly make a case that progress is being made in Iraq against militants of the Islamic State (which is also known as ISIS or ISIL), but he goes too far when he lumps Syria into the same sentence. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal documented that three months of U.S. airstrikes in Syria had failed to prevent the group from expanding its territory in the country. The article quoted a senior defense office as saying that “certainly ISIS has been able to expand in Syria, but that’s not our main objective.”
Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, told the newspaper that airstrikes weren’t intended to prevent Islamic State fighters from gaining ground in most of Syria. “Gaining territorial control in Syria has never been our mission,” he said. “That wasn’t the objective of our airstrikes.”
U.S. military officials have been more forthright about saying they have made progress against Islamic State in Iraq. “We’re starting to see what they’re doing is they’re trying to protect the areas they are in control of now, which I might add is some 700 square kilometers less than it was about six months ago,” Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters in January. He said he was not able to provide a breakdown as to how much was in Iraq and how much was in Syria. In another news briefing, Kirby said that Syria opposition fighters would be trained “to eventually go on the offensive against ISIL inside Syria.”
“It makes no sense to spend $3 million per prisoner to keep open a prison that the world condemns and terrorists use to recruit.”
In fiscal 2014, the total cost of the Guantanamo Bay facility was $397 million, according to a Defense Department report. With about 155 detainees during the year, that averages out to about $2.6 million per detainee. Over the course of the past decade, the prison has cost a total of $8.2 billion, the report says.
“2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.”
Obama correctly cited research from U.S. government scientists.
UPDATE: Obama earns Three Pinocchios for State of the Union remarks on Iran: “Our diplomacy is at work with respect to Iran, where, for the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of its nuclear program and reduced its stockpile of nuclear material.”
UPDATE: Obama earns One Pinocchio for State of the Union remarks on crime and incarceration: “For the first time in 40 years, the crime rate and the incarceration rate have come down together.”
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