ANALYSIS

Sifting through Obama’s questionable claims in State of Union

President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington January 28, 2014.
LARRY DOWNING | REUTERS
President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill in Washington January 28, 2014.
Posted Jan. 29, 2014, at 6:38 a.m.

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 Barack Obama’s more fact-challenged claims, in the order in which he made them.

“The more than 8 million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.”

The president is cherry-picking a number that puts the improvement in the economy in the best possible light. The low point in jobs was reached in February 2010, and there has indeed been a gain of about 8 million jobs since then, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But the data also show that since the start of his presidency, about 3.2 million jobs have been created — and the number of jobs is about 1.2 million fewer than when the recession began in December 2007.

“A manufacturing sector that’s adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s.”

The low point for manufacturing jobs was reached in January 2010, and there has been a gain of 570,000 jobs since then. But BLS data show that the number of manufacturing jobs is still 500,000 lower than when Obama took office in the depths of the recession — and 1.7 million lower than when the recession began in December 2007. The gain in manufacturing actually has begun to stall a bit in the past year. The only reason Obama can tout a gain in manufacturing jobs “for the first time since the 1990s” is that, before the recession, manufacturing had been on a slow decline for many years.

“Our deficits — cut by more than half.”

The federal budget deficit has declined in half since 2009, from $1.3 trillion to about $600 billion, but that’s not much to brag about. The 2009 figure was not just a deficit that Obama inherited from his predecessor, since it also reflected the impact of decisions, such as the $800 billion stimulus bill, enacted early in the president’s term.

Moreover, the deficit soared in the first place because of the recession, so as the economy has improved, the deficit naturally has decreased. The United States still has a deficit higher than it was in nominal terms and as a percentage of gross domestic product than it was in 2008, and a debt much greater as a percentage of overall economy than it was prior to the recession.

“Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

Close readers of the president’s speeches might have noticed an interesting shift in the president’s rhetoric. Just last month, the president gave a speech on economic mobility in which he said three times that it was “declining” in the United States. But this month, renowned economists Raj Chetty, Emmanuel Saez and their colleagues published a paper based on tens of millions of tax records showing that upward mobility had not changed significantly over time. The rate essentially is the same as it was 20 years ago.

Still, the same study confirmed that income inequality had increased during the same period. “Hence, the consequences of the “birth lottery” — the parents to whom a child is born — are larger today than in the past,” the paper said, offering the analogy of a ladder in which the rungs have grown farther apart but the children’s chances of moving upward from one rung to another had not changed.

It is rare to see an academic study lead to such a swift change in presidential rhetoric. Even so, some might argue that Obama is stretching the use of the term “stalled,” since the main point of the research was that the trend was constant, not that it halted.

“Today, women make up about half our workforce. But they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.”

There is clearly a wage gap, but differences in the life choices of men and women — such as women tending to leave the workforce when they have children — make it difficult to make simple comparisons.

Obama is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that the gap is 19 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages — 14 cents — but not every wage earner is paid on an hourly basis, so that statistic excludes salaried workers.

One survey, prepared for the Labor Department, concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled, to about 5 cents on the dollar.

“More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage.”

Obama is careful not to say that these numbers are the result of the Affordable Care Act, but he certainly leaves that impression. But the Medicaid part of this number — 6.3 million from October through December _is very fuzzy and once earned a rating of Three Pinocchios.

The ACA expanded Medicaid to those who earn less than 133 percent of the poverty line — about $15,000 for an individual — to the 26 states (and the District of Columbia) that decided to embrace that element of the law. But no one really knows how many of the 6.3 million are in this expansion pool — or whether they are simply renewing or would have qualified for Medicaid before the new law. Indeed, the number also includes people joining Medicaid in states that choose not accept the expansion.

The private insurance numbers — about 3 million — are also open to question. The troubled federal exchange counts people as “enrolled” if an individual has selected a plan, but does not know if a person enrolled and paid a premium because that part of the system has yet to be built.

 

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