The state of Obama’s facts
An assessment of what was said, and left unsaid, in the State of the Union
The president's State of the Union address got the facts right — mostly.
Often the president's facts and figures were accurate — but not the whole story. It's true (barely) that Bush issued more new regulations than Obama at the same point in their presidencies — but Obama didn't mention that his cost more. The president pointed proudly to increased oil drilling, increased U.S. oil production, and declining dependence on imports. But understandably he passed over any mention of chronically high gasoline prices, which hit a record of sorts last year. And he boasted of recent increases in jobs — which still number nearly 1.7 million fewer than when he took office.
It wasn't a campaign speech, exactly. But it laid out themes on which Obama clearly intends to build his 2012 reelection bid. And in fact, he had already scheduled to embark the following day on a trip to visit five battleground states, where he's expected to elaborate on the proposals laid out in his State of the Union address.
Mostly, the president's specific factual claims were well-founded, as we've come to expect from a speech that has gone through several drafts and thorough vetting. But some were dubious or debatable.
The president said that "the Taliban's momentum has been broken" in Afghanistan, for example. But the conflict continues, and the outcome is not certain.
On Sept. 20, an assassin killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and chief government negotiator with the Taliban. And an expert from the Council on Foreign Relations, Dan Markey, says: "As long as the Taliban believe that they have a backer in Pakistan, even if it is passive backing to provide safe havens, they are inclined to play the long game with the United States, which is to wait it out in Afghanistan."
Chinese tire imports
Similarly, the president claimed that a tougher administration policy against alleged unfair trade practices by China was "making a difference." He added:
Obama: Over a thousand Americans are working today because we stopped a surge in Chinese tires.
The White House based that claim on Bureau of Labor Statistics data that show the number of tire manufacturing jobs went from 50,800 in September 2009, when a new tariff on Chinese tires was announced, to 51,900 in October 2011, the latest figures available. That's a gain of 1,100 jobs. But that says nothing about the cause.
A recent Wall Street Journal article says the increased tariff is falling flat. Imports from China did drop sharply after the tariff took effect in 2009, beginning at a rate of 35 percent. However, Chinese tires were soon replaced by imports from Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico and elsewhere. "So far as saving American jobs, it just isn't working," the newspaper quoted Roy Littlefield of the Tire Industry Association, which has 6,000 members, as saying. "And it really hurt a lot of people in the industry—smaller businesses that geared up to bring these tires in from China."
Boots on the border
Obama took credit for an unprecedented level of border patrol guards along the Mexican border and for a shrinking number of illegal border crossings.
Obama: I believe as strongly as ever that we should take on illegal immigration. That's why my administration has put more boots on the border than ever before. That's why there are fewer illegal crossings than when I took office.
Actually, Obama has increased the Border Patrol only modestly since it nearly doubled under George W. Bush, when the number grew from 11,264 in fiscal year 2005 to 20,119 in fiscal year 2009 (which began Oct. 1, 2008). After that, the number went up to 21,444 by the end of fiscal year 2011, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. About 85 percent of those guards are stationed along the southern border.
It's true that arrests for illegal border crossings have decreased since Obama took office — from 556,041 in fiscal 2009 to 340,252 in fiscal 2011. (Those are nationwide figures, although more than 98 percent of arrests occur along the Mexican border, according to a Congressional Research Service report.) But immigration experts have said the U.S. economy was the number one reason illegal immigration has slowed.
Red tape reduction?
In other cases, the president's factual claims checked out — but didn't tell the whole story.
For example, Obama claimed he approved fewer regulations in his first three years in office than Republican President George W. Bush did three years into his first term. That's true through Obama's first 33 months in office — just barely. But Obama's regulations came at a higher cost.
Obama: In fact, I've approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his.
Obama is right, as far as his statement goes. Bloomberg News, based on a review of Office of Management and Budget data, reported that the Obama administration approved 613 regulations in the first 33 months. That was 30 fewer than Bush approved in his first 33 months.
However, Bloomberg also found that it cost more to comply with Obama's regulations than either Bush's or President Bill Clinton's during that same time period.
Bloomberg News, Oct. 25, 2011: The number of significant federal rules, defined as those costing more than $100 million, has gone up under Obama, with 129 approved so far, compared with 90 for Bush, 115 for President Bill Clinton and 127 for the first President Bush over the same period in their first terms.
This is not the first time that the administration has hand-picked regulatory data to cast its actions in a more positive light than those of Obama's Republican predecessor.
As we wrote in September, Cass Sunstein, administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post to address Republican complaints of overregulation. In that opinion piece, Sunstein said the Bush administration proposed more costly regulations in its last two years than the Obama administration did in its first two years. That was true, but misleading. The fact is that Obama's regulations in his first two years were far more costly than those of Bush's first two years. And that's the more relevant comparison.
Drill, baby, drill
On energy, the president said domestic oil production is booming and dependence on foreign oil is going down. But he didn't mention fuel prices, for good reason.
Obama: Over the last three years, we've opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. … Right now, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years. That's right – eight years. Not only that – last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years.
All that is true — as far as it goes.
According to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 37 million offshore acres were offered in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas exploration and production. The current 2011 average for U.S. petroleum production (through October 2011) is 7,782 million barrels per day, actually the highest in more than a decade — since the average of 8,011 million barrels per day in 1998, according to figures from the Energy Information Administration. And EIA estimates that the current 11-month average for U.S. dependence on foreign oil for 2011 is 45.4 percent. That's the lowest since 44.5 percent in 1995.
But, as we've reported, economists say the chief reason for the declining oil imports is reduced consumption, brought on by the recent economic recession.
And — what the president also didn't mention — the annual average price of a gallon of gasoline was $3.521 in 2011 — the highest in history. It's small comfort to motorists that prices spiked even higher for a brief period under George W. Bush.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Obama was also correct when he said that last year's private job growth was the most in six years and that the manufacturing sector experienced job gains not seen since the 20th century. But he was silent on how far the jobs recovery has to go.
Obama: In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005. American manufacturers are hiring again, creating jobs for the first time since the late 1990s.
Between February 2010 and December 2011, private sector employment climbed from 106,772,000 to 109,928,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's an increase of nearly 3.2 million jobs.
And private sector employment increased by 1.9 million in 2011, going from 108,008,000 in December 2010 to 109,928,000 at the end of 2011. That's the largest annual increase since 2.31 million jobs were added in 2005.
There was also a net increase in manufacturing employment in 2010, when 109,000 jobs were added for the year, and 2011, when 225,000 jobs were added. The last time that happened was back in 1997, when the manufacturing sector added 304,000 jobs that year.
But — what the president didn't mention — total employment in the U.S. remains nearly 1.7 million below where it was the month Obama took office, and more than 6 million below where it was at the best point in the Bush administration, in January 2008.