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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Celebrity Cred

A new McCain ad calls Obama a celebrity (true) who says he'll raise taxes on electricity (false).


McCain's new ad claims that Obama "says he'll raise taxes on electricity." That's false. Obama says no such thing.

McCain relies on a single quote from Obama who once – and only once so far as we can find – suggested taxing "dirty energy," including coal and natural gas. That was in response to a reporter's suggestion that a tax on wind power could fund education. Obama isn't proposing any new tax on electricity or "dirty energy" as part of his platform, and he never has.

It's true that a coal/gas tax would raise electric rates, but so would a cap-and-trade program to restrict carbon emissions. Cap-and-trade is an idea that both McCain and Obama support, in different forms. Neither candidate characterizes cap-and-trade as a "tax."


Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain once again goes after Barack Obama, his Democratic counterpart, in a new television ad titled "Celeb." The ad is airing on a few national networks and in 11 "key states," according to the campaign.

[TET ]

McCain 2008 Ad: "Celeb"

Chant: Obama! Obama!

Narrator: He's the biggest celebrity in the world.

On-screen image: Britney Spears and Paris Hilton

Narrator: But, is he ready to lead?

With gas prices soaring, Barack Obama says no to offshore drilling.

And, says he'll raise taxes on electricity.

Higher taxes, more foreign oil, that's the real Obama.

McCain: I'm John McCain and I approved this message.[/TET]

False Claims 4 U

The ad opens with shots of massive crowds shouting Obama's name. As the female announcer informs us that "he's the biggest celebrity in the world," the camera cuts to quick images of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The announcer then asks whether Obama is ready to lead before informing us that Obama opposes offshore drilling and "says he'll raise taxes on electricity." The cheering crowds are replaced by ominous music as the suddenly serious announcer intones, "Higher taxes. Foreign Oil. That's the real Obama."

The McCain campaign sent reporters a set of "ad facts" to accompany the new spot. But the campaign's sole source for its charge that Obama wants to raise taxes on electricity is a short Feb. 19 interview that Obama gave to Carlos Guerra, a reporter with the San Antonio Express-News. Obama does in fact say, "What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas." But that quote is out of context. Obama and Guerra are discussing possible ways to fund education. Here's the pertinent passage, in full:

Guerra: Have you considered other funding sources, say taxing emerging energy forms, for example, say a penny per kilowatt hour on wind energy?

Obama: Well, that’s clean energy, and we want to drive down the cost of that, not raise it. We need to give them subsidies so they can start developing that. What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas.

But I think that the real way to fund education is for local communities to step up and say this is important to us. There are no shortcuts. When people say they want to fund education with lotteries, or do this or do that, what they are saying is that this isn’t a top priority. It should be a top priority and people should be saying, we get what we pay for.

As we read Obama's response, he is rejecting a tax on wind energy, saying that taxing "dirty energy" is a better option, and then he is rejecting both notions by saying "the real way" is for local communities to "step up" and pay for education with "no shortcuts." Obama's phrasing does leave room for interpretation, but to our ears this is a feeble peg on which to hang a claim that Obama wants to "raise taxes on electricity."

We asked the McCain campaign if it had any other information on which to base this "taxes on electricity" claim, and we received no response. We looked, but could find no instance of Obama making mention of a tax on electricity or any other reference to a "dirty energy" tax. In any case, no such policy proposals are currently part of his public platform.

Cap-and-Trade Programs Are Hott!

What was Obama talking about with his "dirty energy" remark? We asked campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor and got this response: "It was a reference to cap and trade. A position John McCain supports." And it's true that both McCain and Obama support cap-and-trade, which would indeed raise the price of electricity, whether one calls it a "tax" or not.

Cap-and-trade programs are designed to decrease the use of fossil fuels by requiring that industries (including power companies) cap their total carbon dioxide emissions. Companies would receive credits for CO2 emissions; any company that managed to stay under its quota would be permitted to sell its additional credits. The cap (or total number of credits issued) would shrink over time. Obama has proposed auctioning the initial credits, a policy that he says will generate revenue that can be invested into alternative energy research.

Eric Roston, of the nonpartisan Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, says that any cap-and-trade program will raise the cost of electricity. As he told FactCheck.org, "The goal of cap-and-trade is to make fossil fuels more expensive, which will make new technologies competitive with them." And since Obama would be auctioning credits, Roston says that it's "not unreasonable" to label Obama's program a tax politically.

Of course, by that standard, John McCain also favors raising taxes on electricity. McCain's Web site prominently proclaims his support for a cap-and-trade program, and in 2003, McCain and then-Democrat Joe Lieberman jointly sponsored legislation that would have implemented a cap-and-trade system.

Toxic Charges

We usually try to avoid writing articles about Hollywood's latest gossip, but in this case, we felt that the McCain campaign's choice of celebrities is worth a brief mention. In a conference call with reporters, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said the ad features Ms. Hilton and Ms. Spears because, on the listing of "three biggest international celebrities in the world," they rank second and third. We'll leave it to you to judge how up-to-date the McCain campaign's celebrity meter is. But we will note that, in a lucky coincidence, Spears and Hilton also topped an AP poll for "worst celebrity role model." That connection appears to be deliberate. When asked whether the campaign intended to imply that Obama is as "frivolous and irresponsible" as Spears or Hilton, Rogers replied, "I think that's exactly what we've been saying."

If McCain's aides believe that Barack Obama is like Britney Spears, that's their prerogative.

–- by Joe Miller

Update, July 31: Roston contacted us after the article had been published to clarify that it is reasonable politically to classify Obama's cap-and-trade proposal as a tax. We understood that to be his position, but have updated the article to reflect his clarification.


"The Lexington Project: Breaking Our Dependence on Foreign Oil." 2008. JohnMcCain.com. 30 July 2008.

Associated Press. "Britney Tops Poll of Worst Celebrity Role Models." 28 December 2006. MSNBC.com. 30 July 2008.

Guerra, Carlos. "Q&A With Sen. Barack Obama." 19 February 2008. The San Antonio News-Express. 30 July 2008.

S.139: The Climate Stewardship Act of 2003. 9 January 2003. 30 July 2008.