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Fact-Checking President Obama’s Third State of the Union

January 25, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman recaps President Obama's third State of the Union address, then The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler grades the speech on accuracy and provides more context on topics that may have been glazed over.

GWEN IFILL: We look at reaction to President Obama’s big speech in three parts, beginning with this report from NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president was on the move early this morning, taking his State of the Union theme of economic fairness on the road, first stop, Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There’s no reason why we can’t restore that basic American promise that, if you work hard, you can do well.

Now, America is not about handouts. America is about earning everything you have got. And I know that, if we work together and in common purpose, we can build an economy that gives everybody a fair shot. We can meet this challenge.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Washington, members of the U.S. House today were talking about what was and wasn’t in the speech.

REP. JAMES LANKFORD, R-Okla.: Last night, during the State of the Union, he spent exactly 3 percent of the speech talking about debt and deficits. We have $15.3 trillion worth of debt right now in our nation. It is a major issue for us.

REP. DAVID CICILLINE, D-R.I.: Last night, President Obama offered Congress a plan to rebuild our economy with proposals focused on manufacturing, innovation, investments in infrastructure and work force training, proposals that I and many of my colleagues have been working hard to advance.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president’s long list of proposals, including immigration reform and mortgage help for troubled homeowners, are unlikely to be acceptable to congressional Republicans this election year.

And Mr. Obama’s potential rivals this fall also gave his speech the thumbs down from out on the campaign trail.

The president, for example, had said last night.

BARACK OBAMA: Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.


KWAME HOLMAN: But, today, in Orlando, Florida, near Disney World, Mitt Romney said that’s fantasyland talk.

MITT ROMNEY (R): If you really think that things are going well in this country, that we’re on the right track and that his policies are working, you ought to vote for him. But I think, on that basis, if we ask the American people if they think things are going well or not so well, and he wants to get the votes of those who think it’s going well, he’s not going to be president very long.

KWAME HOLMAN: Romney’s rival, Newt Gingrich, took on the president’s tax plan, campaigning in Miami.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): He had a very clever political promise that we ought to make sure that everybody who earns $1 million pays at least 30 percent taxes, which sounds terrific on the surface and is perfectly classic left-wing demagoguery. It would affect the creation of jobs. It would drive capital out of the United States. It would, in fact, force people to invest overseas.

KWAME HOLMAN: Back in Washington, the Senate’s Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, insisted Republican leaders aren’t speaking for their followers.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: The only people in the country, the only Republicans in the country that don’t support that are people in the Congress, Republicans in the Congress. Republicans think it’s a fair thing to do in the country out there that the rich should contribute a little bit to the problems we have in this country.

KWAME HOLMAN: As the debate cranks up, President Obama will stay on the road tonight, leaving snowy Iowa for Arizona, on a three-day tour of five battleground states.

GWEN IFILL: Now: where the president’s State of the Union speech hit and missed the mark.

Glenn Kessler writes the fact-check column for The Washington Post. And he joins me now.

So, Glenn, these big speeches to joint sessions of Congress are, by definition, full of glittering political generalities. How do you tell, how do you begin to measure what’s true and what’s not?

GLENN KESSLER, The Washington Post: Well, I take what the president says or what any speaker like that, and particularly if they throw out facts and figures, I try to go and look at the source of where that fact and figure came from.

Particularly in the case of a State of the Union address, it’s very much like the prosecutor’s case in a final argument in a trial. He’s going to make his case. And so he often will skip over things that are — that don’t support his case. And so that’s where I come in and try to provide some additional context or the facts as they may be.

GWEN IFILL: Well, help us isolate three particular things he said in the speech last night and provide some of that context.

The first we’re going to take a look at is what he had to say about where the United States stands in its war in Iraq and its dealings with the Taliban and with — and in Afghanistan. Let’s listen to it.

BARACK OBAMA: For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq.


BARACK OBAMA: The Taliban’s momentum has been broken. And some troops in Afghanistan have begun to come home.

GWEN IFILL: He also said that Osama bin Laden is dead, something which is clearly true and something which he mentioned at the beginning and at the end of the speech.

But as you parse just that part where he talked about Afghanistan, the Taliban and Iraq, what’s right and what’s kind of right?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, I mean, he’s correct that, obviously, U.S. troops have left Iraq. The question is, you know, what have they left?

And you can look at the way the American troops departed. There was an effort originally the administration made in order to extend the security agreement. And then they were either unwilling or unable to extend that agreement. And that’s why the troops left. He is able to say he fulfilled a campaign promise.

But, at the moment, Iraq is in a very unstable situation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and if American contractors are still on the ground, aren’t there Americans still on the ground?

GLENN KESSLER: Yes, there are Americans there, too. There’s a huge State Department presence as well, and being protected by those contractors.

So it’s troops, but, you know, combat troops — but there are certainly a lot of Americans there.

GWEN IFILL: Is the Taliban broken?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, he said that the momentum was broken.


GLENN KESSLER: Again, it’s one of those — it’s one of those very carefully phrased statements that they put in these speeches.

There was an intelligence assessment by intelligence agencies that was leaked earlier this month which indicated that the intelligence community felt that the war was at a stalemate. And so — and we have a very tense situation with the government in Afghanistan.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s go on to the question about the economy. What’s the problem and what’s the fix? Here is part of what the president had to say.

BARACK OBAMA: We will not go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing, bad debt, and phony financial profits.

It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom: no bailouts, no handouts and no cop-outs.

GWEN IFILL: Where to begin. How about the “no bailouts” part?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, he obviously did have quite a few bailouts at the beginning of his presidency. He now says he won’t have any bailouts.

But — and it was strange to me that, actually, later in the speech, he celebrated a bailout, which was the assistance that the Treasury Department gave to General Motors and Ford. I thought both those statements were kind of confusing and didn’t make a fair amount of sense.

He also talked about outsourcing, of an economy weakened by outsourcing. It’s unclear how much the U.S. economy was — the economic crisis occurred because of outsourcing or what President Obama has done about it.

GWEN IFILL: And do we know what he was talking about when he said phony financial profits?

GLENN KESSLER: That is a bit of a mystery to me.


Let’s move on to third one, because one of the central arguments he’s been making — and he had Warren Buffett’s secretary in the first lady’s box last night at the State of the Union — is that there are people, middle-class people, who are paying less in taxes than multimillionaires like Warren Buffett. This is what he said.

BARACK OBAMA: Right now, because of loopholes and shelters in the tax code, a quarter of all millionaires pay lower tax rates than millions of middle-class households.

GWEN IFILL: I wanted to ask you about that, but I want to correct one thing. It wasn’t Ford that got the bailout. It was Chrysler that got the bailout money. Ford actually passed up on it.

GWEN IFILL: But we just wanted to clear that up.

But let’s go back to talking about it. Is it true that people who are middle class are paying less in taxes than their millionaire bosses?

GLENN KESSLER: Yes, there are obviously some examples of that.

The examples that I have found are few and far between. I mean, he gave that statistic there. He said one-quarter of millionaires. What that means is, if you look at the data, that’s 94,000 millionaires vs. tens of millions of ordinary Americans.

Now, there are — in general, the same data will show that, on average, people that earn more than a million dollars pay on average about 30 percent of their income in taxes. So he’s taking a small example and making a political case out of it. But the way he makes that statement, it sounds like it’s a bigger problem than it really is.

GWEN IFILL: Worse, we think, than it is.

So one of the other things the president does at these speeches is, he says, we will do this, we will do that. But he was speaking to a famously divided Congress. To what degree can the president accomplish some of the things he laid out last night without any kind of legislative buy-in — bipartisan legislative buy-in?

GLENN KESSLER: Well, many of those things will require legislative action. And so it’s a kind of a call to arms for his — for his political supporters.

I went back and looked at how successful he was in implementing his ideas in the 2011 State of the Union, and it was a pretty meager record. Many of the things he proposed were never enacted into law.

GWEN IFILL: For example?

GLENN KESSLER: Oh. Well. . .

GWEN IFILL: I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. Sorry.

GLENN KESSLER: Go look at my column. I had little X’s and checks there.


GLENN KESSLER: But, to be fair to him, is that he — I also looked at in the 2010, a year ago. And he had a phenomenal success record then.

Virtually everything he said he was going to do actually passed into law. But that’s because it was a Democratic-controlled Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Funny how that changes.

Well, Glenn Kessler, thank you very much.

GLENN KESSLER: You’re welcome.