FactCheck: Biden’s State of the Union Address
The president stretched the facts on gas prices, jobs, tax cuts and more
In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, before turning to his accomplishments and agenda for the coming year. Some of his statements didn’t square with the facts.
Biden spoke to Congress on March 1.
Strategic Petroleum Reserve
In discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the impact on the global economy, Biden announced that dozens of countries had agreed to release 60 million barrels of oil from reserves — including 30 million barrels from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.
“These steps will help blunt gas prices here at home,” Biden claimed. But oil prices continued to rise despite the announcement, and energy experts said the emergency measures aren’t enough to have an impact.
The BBC reported that Brent crude, the global benchmark for oil prices, reached $110 a barrel — the highest level in more than seven years, despite the announcement of the release of 60 million barrels of oil reserves. In a similar report on the continued surge in oil prices despite the planned release, the Wall Street Journal quoted Daniel Hynes, senior commodity strategist at ANZ in Sydney, as saying: “The sheer magnitude of the supply at risk of disruption means even a decent chunk of reserves being released may not make a dent.”
Likewise, S&P Global said in a blog post that the “announcement of the release of 60 million barrels of crude brought little comfort to oil markets, as it was largely in line with expectations and seen as insufficient to act as a counterweight to the disruption to Russian oil supplies.” Market strategist Yeap Jun Rong of IG in Singapore told S&P Global that the markets are “clearly disappointed with the size of the strategic reserves release.”
“[T]he 60 million barrels equivalent to just 4% of its overall emergency stockpiles and accounting for less than one day of worldwide oil consumption,” he said.
Manufacturing jobs boast
After ticking off a list of company announcements on new investments, the president boasted: “All told, 369,000 new manufacturing jobs are created in America last year alone.” That’s close to accurate, but lacks context.
Since Biden took office in January, the U.S. economy has added 375,000 manufacturing jobs, measuring from January 2021 to January 2022. Employment in manufacturing now stands at 12.6 million jobs. But that’s 226,000 fewer manufacturing jobs than the U.S. had in February 2020, so the sector has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.
Also, the growth of manufacturing jobs has lagged the overall economy. The addition of 375,000 manufacturing jobs represents an increase of 3.1%, while the economy during that time added more than 6.6 million total jobs, a gain of 4.6%.
More on jobs
Biden again boasted about record employment gains during his first year as president — without acknowledging that historical comparisons are skewed by the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In fact, our economy created over 6.5 million new jobs just last year, more jobs in one year than ever before in the history of the United States of America,” he said.
That’s true, but the record comes with some asterisks.
As we have noted before, the U.S. economy had lost nearly 22 million jobs at the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April 2020, when large parts of the economy shut down. By the time Biden took office, only about 57% of those jobs had come back, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates. That meant there was still a lot of ground to make up.
And, despite the progress that has been made under Biden, total nonfarm employment in January was still about 2.9 million jobs below the pre-recession peak in February 2020.
It’s also worth noting that Biden presided over the largest one-year increase in raw numbers — but not on a percentage basis.
In Jimmy Carter’s first year as president in the late 1970s, employment went up by 4.8%, and it went up by 4.98% in Carter’s second year — higher than the 4.6% increase under Biden. There also were several years during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s when jobs increased by larger percentages.
Comparing the percentage increase — rather than raw numbers — helps account for changes in the size of the labor force and the overall population over time.
Biden said he would be the first president to cut the federal government’s annual deficit by $1 trillion.
Biden: By the end of this year, the deficit will be down to less than half of what it was before I took office. The only president ever to cut the deficit by more than $1 trillion in a single year.
That may turn out to be true — the current fiscal year is less than half over and a lot could still happen. But in historical context it would be less dramatic than it might sound.
The first time the entire annual deficit even reached $1 trillion was the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009. The pandemic pushed it to a record of over $3.1 trillion in the year ending Sept. 30, 2020, and in the most recent fiscal year it was still nearly $2.8 trillion.
During the first four months of the current fiscal year the deficit has declined dramatically. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s monthly budget review, the deficit was $259 billion during the period, or roughly one-third of what it had been in the comparable period a year earlier.
CBO said most of the reduction came from increased revenue, not from any penny-pinching by Biden. The economy surged faster than expected, and workers’ pay rose, producing more taxes being withheld.
Should trends continue, the deficit for the current fiscal year could easily be less than half the record $3.1 trillion reached the year before he took office, as Biden said. But it would still be among the half-dozen or so highest in history.
Burn pits and cancer
In the part of his address dedicated to veterans, Biden linked burn pits, or open air waste incineration sites that were common near U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, to cancer. While more research is needed, it’s worth noting that scientists have not yet found a clear link between burn pits and cancer.
When troops come home after being “stationed at bases and breathing in toxic smoke from burn pits,” the president said, many service members are “never the same. Headaches. Numbness. Dizziness. A cancer that would put them in a flag-draped coffin.”
Biden went on to mention his son, Beau Biden, who served in Iraq and died from brain cancer in 2015, along with Sgt. 1st Class Heath Robinson, who was stationed in Baghdad and succumbed to lung cancer.
“[C]ancer from prolonged exposure to burn pits ravaged Heath’s lungs and body,” Biden said.
The president was careful to say that it’s not known whether burn pits caused his son’s cancer, but he was less circumspect in describing Robinson’s case.
The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine has reviewed the scientific evidence and, in two reports, has concluded that there isn’t enough evidence to show a connection between burn pits or other airborne hazards encountered by such service members and cancer.
As we’ve written, when Biden previously claimed that “more people are coming home from Iraq with brain cancer … than any other war,” a 2011 report by the Academy on the long-term health effects of burn pit exposure in Iraq and Afghanistan found that there was “inadequate/insufficient evidence” to determine whether there is an association with cancer.
Another report in 2020 similarly found “inadequate or insufficient evidence of an association between airborne hazards exposures in the Southwest Asia theater and the subsequent development of respiratory cancers.”
It’s important to note that the reports do not mean that burn pits haven’t caused cancers — and we don’t have any specific knowledge of Robinson’s case. But it’s also true that researchers do not have much evidence that burn pits have caused cancers, as one might assume when hearing Biden’s description.
In his address, Biden announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to propose adding certain rare cancers to the presumed service-connected list as related to military environmental exposure. The list doesn’t include brain cancer, but does list several cancers of the lung, among others.
According to the VA press release, the department said that “through a focused review of scientific and medical evidence there is biologic plausibility between airborne hazards, specifically particulate matter, and carcinogenesis of the respiratory tract, and that the unique circumstances of these rare cancers warrant a presumption of service connection.”
“The rarity and severity of these illnesses, and the reality that these conditions present a situation where it may not be possible to develop additional evidence prompted us to take this critical action,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough added in the release.
Research and development
Diverging from his prepared remarks, Biden misled on the proportion of the United States’ gross domestic product invested in research and development.
“But folks, to compete for the jobs of the future, we also need to level the playing field with China and other competitors,” Biden said. “We used to invest almost 2% of our GDP in research and development. We don’t now … China is.”
Biden made similar claims last spring while advocating the passage of the American Jobs Plan, aspects of which were later incorporated into the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that passed in November.
Biden was likely referring to federal research funding, which has fallen below 2%, according to an analysis of federal R&D funding by Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
But as we reported last May, the United States’ total R&D funding — which includes private business and nonprofits — was over 3% in 2019 (the last year for which data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development was available for both countries).
“In the United States, R&D intensity surpassed the 3% milestone for the first time, while the R&D intensity of China grew from 2.1% to 2.2%,” the OECD said in a March 2021 report. (“R&D intensity” is another term for domestic expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP.)
Experts we consulted told us that China has been heavily investing in research and development and may soon surpass the U.S. — but it hasn’t done so just yet.
“As far as I can assess there is no way you can say that China is ahead of the U.S. in R&D,” Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told us last year.
Atkinson cowrote a 2019 analysis of federal funding for research and development that said the U.S. government invests about $125 billion per year in R&D. In 2017, the U.S. federal government invested about $26 billion more than the Chinese government in “absolute and purchasing power parity terms (controlling for each nation’s cost of living),” the report said.
13th in infrastructure
In talking about the bipartisan infrastructure law, Biden said, “America used to have the best roads, bridges, and airports on Earth. Now our infrastructure is ranked 13th in the world.”
His claim is based on a 2019 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum, in which the U.S. overall ranked second among 141 economies, but 13th when looking at infrastructure.
But some say the report underrates the U.S. on infrastructure. As the Washington Post’s Charles Lane stated, the countries listed ahead of the U.S. are smaller and therefore have less infrastructure challenges. The list is topped by Singapore, followed by the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, United Kingdom, and United Arab Emirates. The six continental countries in Europe should also count as a unit, he argued. This adjustment, Lane said, “puts the United States in the top five.”
And when considering the largest countries in the world, both geographically and in terms of population, the U.S. comes first in terms of infrastructure in the list. China, for example, ranked 36th, Canada 26th, India 70th and the Russian Federation 50th.
Although U.S. infrastructure ranked 9th in the 2018 report and higher in previous years, the 13th place is an improvement when compared with the2011-12 report that ranked U.S. infrastructure in 24th place out of 142 economies.
On Trump tax cuts
As he often does, Biden cherry-picked from the 2017 tax cuts backed by then-President Donald Trump to claim that the law “benefited the top 1% of Americans.”
Biden: Unlike the $2 trillion tax cut passed in the previous administration that benefited the top 1% of Americans, the American Rescue Plan helped working people — and left no one behind.
Americans in every income category saw tax cuts from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in the immediate years after the law passed in 2017.Biden and other Democrats regularly focus on the latter years of the legislation, when the balance of tax cuts shift to the wealthiest Americans. As we have written, in order for the legislation to be passed via reconciliation, most of the individual income tax provisions are set to expire by 2027, while the corporate tax cuts would remain, making the tax benefit distribution more lopsided for the top 1% than in earlier years.
So, while the top 1% got 20.5% of the total tax benefits in 2018, and 25.3% of the tax benefits in 2025, the share of the total tax savings that accrues to the top 1% in 2027 is 82.8%, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center.
Republicans say they expect a future Congress will extend the individual tax cuts, rather than allowing taxes for many to increase, but that will be up to a future Congress to decide.
Biden went on to say that while Republicans have long promised that the benefits of tax cuts for “those at the top” would “trickle down,” they instead led to “lower wages.”
We can’t say what the impact of the Trump-championed tax cuts may have been on wages, but as we wrote in October for our story “Trump’s Final Numbers,” the average weekly earnings of all private-sector workers, in “real” (inflation-adjusted) terms, rose 8.7% in Trump’s four years. Wages for rank-and-file production and nonsupervisory workers — who make up 81% of all private-sector workers — went up 9.8% under Trump.
Gun manufacturers and liability
The president called on Congress to “repeal the liability shield that makes gun manufacturers the only industry in America that can’t be sued.”
Gun makers are protected from some, but not all, civil lawsuits under federal law. Other industries, such as vaccine manufacturers and administrators, also receive certain liability protections.
As we have previously reported, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act does largely prevent licensed manufacturers, dealers, sellers of firearms or ammunition, and trade associations from being sued over the misuse of guns or ammunition.
But the 2005 law outlines six exceptions through which civil lawsuits can be brought against firearm manufacturers. These exceptions include cases in which there was negligence on behalf of the firearm seller, a firearm was transferred with the knowledge that it would be used to commit a crime, and manufacturers and sellers violated state or federal law when marketing or selling a firearm.