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Obama Spins, Strays From Some Facts

By Brooks Jackson, San Francisco Chronicle - April 26, 2009

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

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After nearly 100 days in office, we find that President Obama is sticking to the facts - mostly.

Nevertheless, we at FactCheck.org have a mission of "holding politicians accountable," and we have noted that the president has occasionally strayed from the facts - or has spun them. And he has done so generally in ways that put him and his policies in a better light than the facts warrant.

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For example, facing some heat from critics who complain that the administration's budget figures are too rosy, Obama offered a misleading defense to a national TV audience during his prime-time news conference on March 24. He said, "Our assumptions are perfectly consistent with what Blue Chip forecasters out there are saying." That wasn't true.

Obama was referring to the Blue Chip Economic Indicators, a survey of forecasts from 50 private economists. In fact, at the time he spoke, the most recent Blue Chip forecast was far more pessimistic than the administration's budget projections. That's no small matter, because a weaker economic performance will produce even larger federal deficits than the Obama budget already forecast

Sunday, April 26, 2009

After nearly 100 days in office, we find that President Obama is sticking to the facts - mostly.

Nevertheless, we at FactCheck.org have a mission of "holding politicians accountable," and we have noted that the president has occasionally strayed from the facts - or has spun them. And he has done so generally in ways that put him and his policies in a better light than the facts warrant.

For example, facing some heat from critics who complain that the administration's budget figures are too rosy, Obama offered a misleading defense to a national TV audience during his prime-time news conference on March 24. He said, "Our assumptions are perfectly consistent with what Blue Chip forecasters out there are saying." That wasn't true.

Obama was referring to the Blue Chip Economic Indicators, a survey of forecasts from 50 private economists. In fact, at the time he spoke, the most recent Blue Chip forecast was far more pessimistic than the administration's budget projections. That's no small matter, because a weaker economic performance will produce even larger federal deficits than the Obama budget already forecasts.

Another example came more recently, when the president said during his visit to Mexico on April 16: "More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States." Actually, that's not what government statistics show. Only some of the guns recovered in Mexico are given to U.S. law enforcement officials for tracing, so they can't say what fraction of all such guns originate in the United States.

Other examples:

-- He told a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24 that "we import more oil today than ever before." That's untrue. Imports peaked in 2005 and are lower today.

-- He claimed in the same speech that his mortgage aid plan would help "responsible" buyers but not those who borrowed beyond their means. But even prominent defenders of the program in his administration concede that foolish borrowers will be aided, too.

-- He said in an address on March 10 that the high school dropout rate has "tripled in the past 30 years." But according to the Department of Education, it actually has declined by a third.

-- Obama also got it wrong when he claimed in his March 24 speech that "we are reducing nondefense discretionary spending to its lowest level since the '60s." His own forecast puts this figure higher than in many years under Reagan, Clinton or either Bush.

In that last example, Obama took a page straight from his predecessor's playbook. He used the same verbal sleight-of-hand that Bush had used to deflect attention from the larger truth that total federal spending is (and was) soaring far beyond the government's means to pay for it. "Nondefense discretionary spending" is just a small slice (under 20 percent) of total spending. It excludes military spending, homeland security spending and rapidly rising Social Security and Medicare spending, among other things. So even if Obama's claim had been true, it would have been misleading - pure spin.

We also have found Obama pretending to be more certain than is warranted. He is fond of repeating, for example, that his stimulus bill will "create or save" 3.5 million jobs.

Maybe so; some leading economists figure that's possible, though far from certain. The immediate reality, however, is that the economy has been losing an average of 22,000 jobs per day since Obama took office.

Some of this is to be expected. Presidents know they must exude optimism about the economy because any hint of pessimism is likely to send stock and bond markets into a funk and make matters even worse. So presidents tend to become economic cheerleaders. And we expect a certain degree of self-serving puffery from any leader. Generals don't go into battle talking glumly about the number of dead and wounded sure to result from their orders.

Of course, we have noted plenty of false claims made by Obama's critics, too. Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia claimed that Obama's stimulus bill created "a national health care rationing board" when in fact it did nothing of the sort. A number of House and Senate Republicans claimed that the stimulus bill contained $8 billion for a "levitating train." In fact, not a dime of the money was earmarked for the proposed 300 mph "maglev" bullet train between Anaheim and Las Vegas; the $8 billion is being directed to 10 other passenger routes using more conventional technology. Our site contains plenty of similar examples.

We're not saying Obama is any better or worse than his critics. We just think citizens deserve accurate information.

Brooks Jackson is a journalist who has covered Washington for 38 years. He is director of FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Contact us at forum@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page H - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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