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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactChecking Obama

He stuck to the facts, except when he stretched them.


We checked the accuracy of Obama’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination, and noted the following:

  • Obama said he could “pay for every dime” of his spending and tax cut proposals “by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens.” That’s wrong – his proposed tax increases on upper-income individuals are key components of paying for his program, as well. And his plan, like McCain’s, would leave the U.S. facing big budget deficits, according to independent experts.
  • He twisted McCain’s words about Afghanistan, saying, “When John McCain said we could just ‘muddle through’ in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources.” Actually, McCain said in 2003 we “may” muddle through, and he recently also called for more troops there.
  • He said McCain would fail to lower taxes for 100 million Americans while his own plan would cut taxes for 95 percent of “working” families. But an independent analysis puts the number who would see no benefit from McCain’s plan at 66 million and finds that Obama’s plan would benefit 81 percent of all households when retirees and those without children are figured in.
  • Obama asked why McCain would "define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year"? Actually, McCain meant that comment as a joke, getting a laugh and following up by saying, "But seriously …"
  • Obama noted that McCain’s health care plan would "tax people’s benefits" but didn’t say that it also would provide up to a $5,000 tax credit for families.
  • He said McCain, far from being a maverick who’s "broken with his party," has voted to support Bush policies 90 percent of the time. True enough, but by the same measure Obama has voted with fellow Democrats in the Senate 97 percent of the time.
  • Obama said "average family income" went down $2,000 under Bush, which isn’t correct. An aide said he was really talking only about "working" families and not retired couples. And – math teachers, please note – he meant median (or midpoint) and not really the mean or average. Median family income actually has inched up slightly under Bush.


Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama accepted his party’s nomination Aug. 28, speaking before more than 84,000 people in Denver’s Mile High football stadium. Some of his comments were worthy of a ref’s yellow flag.


Not Quite Every Dime

Obama reassured voters that he can pay for all his spending proposals:

Obama: Now, many of these plans will cost money, which is why I’ve laid out how I’ll pay for every dime – by closing corporate loopholes and tax havens that don’t help America grow.

This is misleading. Even by his own campaign’s estimates, closing corporate loopholes and tax havens won’t pay for all of Obama’s new plans. In July, the campaign told the Los Angeles Times that they estimate the yearly cost of their proposed tax cuts at $130 billion. They put revenue from closing tax loopholes at just $80 billion. Obama also proposes to raise taxes to pre-Bush levels for families earning more than $250,000 a year and singles making more than $200,000, yielding additional revenue. But he didn’t mention that in his speech.

But Obama’s claim is misleading on another level. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, "without substantial cuts in government spending" Obama’s plan – and McCain’s, too –  "would substantially increase the national debt over the next ten years." Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor told FactCheck.org that the Tax Policy Center’s analysis "fails to take in account Senator Obama’s spending cuts, including ending the Iraq war." That’s true, but Obama’s proposed cuts are dwarfed by the Tax Policy Center’s projected deficits. Obama’s new spending programs might be completely offset by new revenue and spending cuts. But overall spending will still exceed overall revenue, and the nation would face at least 10 more years of annual deficits.

Afghan Muddle

Obama twisted McCain’s words about Afghanistan, incorrectly implying that McCain saw no need for more troops there.

Obama: When John McCain said we could just “muddle through” in Afghanistan, I argued for more resources and more troops to finish the fight against the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11

Actually, McCain said in 2003 that the U.S. "may" muddle through, not that we could or would. He also said he was very concerned about a rise in al Qaeda activity there. He said then that he was "guardedly optimistic" that the government could handle it.

McCain, 2003: I think Afghanistan is dicey. I think that there are certain areas of the country, particularly along the Pakistani border, that are clearly not under the control of either Pakistan or the Afghan government. … There has been a rise in al Qaeda activity along the border. There has been some increase in U.S. casualties. I am concerned about it, but I’m not as concerned as I am about Iraq today, obviously, or I’d be talking about Afghanistan. But I believe that if Karzai can make the progress that he is making, that – in the long term, we may muddle through in Afghanistan.

So I’m guardedly optimistic, but I am also realistic that the central government in Kabul has very little effect on the policies and practices of the warlords who control the surrounding areas.

Recently, however, both candidates have called for an increased troop presence in Afghanistan. In July, Obama proposed sending two more combat brigades, drawn down from Iraq. McCain immediately followed this with a call for three more brigades, but later clarified that some of those troops would be NATO forces. A McCain spokeswoman said that the U.S. would "contribute" troops to the increase under McCain’s plan.

Tax Spin

Obama said: “I will cut taxes … for 95 percent of all working families.” And he said McCain proposes “not one penny of tax relief to more than 100 million Americans,” a claim his running mate, Joe Biden, made the night before.

Obama is right about his plan’s effect on working families. More broadly, though, the plan cuts taxes for 81.3 percent of all households in 2009, according to the Tax Policy Center. The TPC also says McCain’s tax plan would leave 65.8 million households without a cut, not 100 million.

The TPC’s calculations factor in what’s in effect a hidden tax on individuals that results from taxing corporations. McCain proposes to lower the corporate income tax rate, and Obama proposes billions of dollars in increased corporate taxes in the form of “loophole closings.” Individuals wouldn’t experience those changes as an increased tax bill from the government, but both the Congressional Budget Office and TPC allocate all corporate tax to owners of capital rather than to consumers. That means rather than flowing through to consumers in the form of higher prices or lower wages, corporate tax changes would show up as higher or lower returns on investments, which typically come in the form of corporate dividends, and profits or losses from stock sales.

Only by ignoring the hidden benefit to individuals can McCain’s plan be said to produce no cut for 100 million households. According to a calculation the TPC did at FactCheck’s request, 101.9 million see no benefit if the effects of a corporate reduction are set aside.

For the record, Obama aides say the indirect effect on holders of capital won’t be as large as TPC says. "We dispute TPC’s methodology here," says Brian Deese of the Obama campaign. He says several of the "loophole closers" that Obama is proposing won’t affect corporations or are on offshore activity that will not directly filter through.

We’d also note that retirees would fare quite a bit less well than working families under Obama’s tax plan: The TPC estimates that 32 percent of households with a person over age 65 would see a tax increase.

Rich Humor

Obama used a clumsy attempt at humor by McCain as evidence of his supposed insensitivity to middle-class economic realities:

Obama: Now, I don’t believe that Senator McCain doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of Americans; I just think he doesn’t know. Why else would he define middle-class as someone making under five million dollars a year?

What McCain actually said at the Saddleback Church forum on Aug. 16 was that he favors low taxes for all income levels. He drew a laugh, then said, "but seriously" as he struggled to make his point:

Pastor Rick Warren, Aug. 16: [G]ive me a number, give me a specific number – where do you move from middle class to rich?

McCain: I don’t want to take any money from the rich – I want everybody to get rich. … So, I think if you are just talking about income, how about $5 million?


But seriously, I don’t think you can – I don’t think seriously that – the point is that I’m trying to make here, seriously – and I’m sure that comment will be distorted – but the point is that we want to keep people’s taxes low and increase revenues.

Health Care Half Truths

Obama gave only half the story when he described a feature of McCain’s health care plan:

Obama: How else could he offer a health care plan that would actually tax people’s benefits…

McCain proposes to grant families up to a $5,000 tax credit to use for health benefits. The flip side of that proposal, which McCain seldom if ever mentions, is that the value of employer-sponsored benefits would also become taxable. Both candidates are trading in half-truths here; McCain talks only about the pleasurable side of his plan, while Obama’s speech mentioned only the painful aspect. Neither gives a complete picture.

Party Hearties

Obama painted McCain as a Republican partisan who’s supported the unpopular President Bush consistently:

Obama: And next week, we’ll also hear about those occasions when he’s broken with his party as evidence that he can deliver the change that we need. But the record’s clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time.

It’s true that McCain’s voting support for Bush policies has averaged slightly above 89 percent since Bush took office, according to Congressional Quarterly’s vote studies. But it has ebbed and flowed. It reached a low of 77 percent in 2005. Last year it was 95 percent. By comparison, Obama’s own record of supporting Bush policies has averaged slightly under 41 percent since the senator took office. However, Obama’s voting record is no less partisan than McCain’s. He has voted in line with his party an average of nearly 97 percent of the time. The truth is that neither candidate can claim a strong record of "breaking with his party" if Senate votes are the measure.


He Didn’t Mean It

Obama also pulled some sleight of hand when he stated that "the average American family" saw its income "go down $2,000" under George Bush. That’s not correct. Census figures show average family income went down $348.

As it turns out, when Obama said "average family income," he didn’t mean "average," and he didn’t mean "family," either. An Obama aide says he was really referring to median income – which is the midpoint – and not to the average. And Obama was talking only about "working families," not retired couples.

For all families, median family income actually inched up under Bush by $272.

– by Brooks Jackson, with Viveca Novak, Justin Bank, Jess Henig, Emi Kolawole, Joe Miller, Lori Robertson and D’Angelo Gore



Burman, Len, et. al. “An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans: Revised August 15, 2008.” Tax Policy Center, 15 Aug. 2008.

Table T08-0182, Senator McCain’s Tax Proposals as Described by his Economic Advisors, Distribution of Federal Tax Change by Cash Income Percentile, 2009. Tax Policy Center, 19 July 2008.

Gleckman, Roberton Williams and Howard. "An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans." 28 August 2008. The Tax Policy Center. 29 August 2008

Nicholas, Peter. "Adding Up the Cost of Obama’s agenda." 8 July 2008. The Los Angeles Times. 29 August 2008

CQ member Profiles: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). 1 Apr. 2007. Congressional Quarterly, 9 June 2008.

CQ member Profiles: Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill). February 2008. Congressional Quarterly, 12 June 2008.

Transcript, "Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum" CNN.com 16 Aug. 2008.

Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, "Table T08-0203 – Senator Obama’s Tax Proposals of August 14, 2008: Economic Advisers’ Version (No Payroll Surtax), Distribution of Federal Tax Change by Cash Income Percentile, 2009" 14 Aug 2008.