The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Bottomless Pinocchio for Biden — and other recent gaffes

(Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

President Biden is a self-described “gaffe machine.” That’s no excuse, of course, for a president making false or misleading statements. Readers have asked for fact checks of a variety of recent Biden statements, but none of them seemed big enough for a stand-alone fact check. So here’s a roundup of some of the president’s recent errors of fact, made as he has barnstormed the country boosting Democrats and raising contributions in advance of the midterm elections. We generally do not award Pinocchios for roundups like this — but for reasons that will become clear, we need to make an exception for the first one.

“Folks, I spent a lot of time — more time with Xi Jinping than any other head of state. … I’ve traveled 17,000 miles with him.”

remarks at a political event in San Diego, Nov. 3

This is an old claim we had debunked shortly after Biden took office, giving him Three Pinocchios. There is no evidence Biden traveled that much with Xi, the president of China — and even if we added up the miles Biden flew to see Xi, it still did not total 17,000 miles. The White House could not offer an explanation for that number either.

But it’s noteworthy because, despite our fact check and a White House admission that Biden’s line of “traveling with” Xi was not accurate, with this comment, Biden had made the claim 20 times during his presidency. (He then said it a 21st time a few hours later, in another speech, with a slight twist: “… when I traveled 17-, 18,000 miles with him.”) Biden is so fond of this bogus statistic that he even mentioned it during high-profile speeches such as a joint session of Congress and a commencement address.

Why is this significant? Readers may recall that during Donald Trump’s presidency, we established a new category, the Bottomless Pinocchio, to account for false or misleading statements repeated so often that they became a form of propaganda. A statement would get added to the list if it had earned a Three or Four Pinocchios rating and been repeated at least 20 times. By the end of the Trump presidency, 56 claims made by Trump had qualified.

Now Biden has earned his own Bottomless Pinocchio.

President Biden's claim that he "traveled 17,000 miles with" Chinese President Xi Jinping can't be verified. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

“Today, the most common price of gas in America is $3.39 — down from over $5 when I took office.”

remarks at a community college in Syracuse, N.Y., Oct. 27

Many readers complained about his comment, given that average gas prices were about $2.48 the week Biden took office, according to the Energy Information Administration. Soaring gas prices over the course of Biden’s presidency have been a drag on his approval ratings. (The White House in fact has preferred to refer the “most common price,” which comes from the GasBuddy app and tends to be lower than the average price because California, with its super-high gas prices, raises the average.)

Biden was basically correct on the “most common price” at the time he made this comment but appears to have misspoken about the price when he took office. Generally, his speeches have referenced prices over the summer, not when he took office, as that tells a better story. For instance, a few days later, on Oct. 31, Biden said: “In June, the average price — not the most common price, but the average price — nationwide was — was over $5 a gallon. Today, the average price for a gallon of gas is $3.76.”

“On my watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are getting an increase in their Social Security checks.”

remarks at a community center in Hallandale Beach, Fla., Nov. 1

A version of this line ended up in a White House tweet that same day — “Seniors are getting the biggest increase in their Social Security checks in 10 years through President Biden’s leadership” — which officials deleted after Twitter labeled it as lacking context.

The problem? The reason Social Security payments are going up is because Social Security benefits, under a law passed in 1972, are adjusted every year to keep pace with inflation.

Next year, benefits will increase 8.7 percent — but that’s because inflation has soared at that level. Biden and the Federal Reserve have been trying to fight inflation, but without much success so far.

“You are probably aware that I just signed a law that is being challenged by my Republican colleagues. … What we’ve provided for is, if you went to school, if you qualified for a Pell Grant … you qualify for $20,000 in debt forgiveness. Secondly, if you don’t have one of those loans, you just get $10,000 written off. It’s passed. I got it passed by a vote or two.”

remarks at a forum with NowThis, Oct. 23

In describing his plan for student loan forgiveness, Biden oddly said he had “just signed a law” that was approved in Congress by “a vote or two.”

But he never presented such a proposal for Congress to consider.

Instead, Biden relied on new authority granted by the Justice Department — a fresh interpretation of a law passed almost two decades ago, the 2003 Higher Education Relief Opportunities for Students Act, often dubbed the Heroes Act. In a legal opinion, the Justice Department concluded that the law authorizes the education secretary to relieve borrowers of the obligation to repay federal student loans. Thus, the president could announce a plan to cancel student loans.

Previously, the Trump and Biden administrations used the law to pause student loan payments as the coronavirus pandemic raged. But the Trump administration concluded that it could not use the law for cancellation or forgiveness of student loans. The Biden Justice Department arrived at the opposite interpretation.

Ultimately, the issue will be settled in the courts. An appeals court has frozen Biden’s program in response to a lawsuit filed by Republican state attorneys general.

The White House said Biden misspoke and meant to refer to the Inflation Reduction Act, a bill mostly focused on climate change and raising tax revenue. That law passed on a party-line vote, with a tiebreaking vote in the Senate cast by Vice President Harris.

But the Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with student loans — and analysts have said that whatever deficit reduction is achieved by the law will be quickly exceeded by the cost of the student loan program, if it survives legal challenges.

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Sign up for The Fact Checker weekly newsletter

The Fact Checker is a verified signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network code of principles