A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Closing Arguments: Obama

With the finish line in sight, Obama serves up familiar, pie-in-the-sky promises.


Summary

In the last few days, Obama has wrapped up his pitch to the electorate with some misleading claims we’ve heard before: 

  • He continued to ask voters to believe he can pay for every dime of an ambitious health care plan and other spending proposals while cutting taxes for all but the most affluent. Budget experts say that’s unlikely.
  • He also kept up the drumbeat on a promise to end "tax breaks for sending jobs overseas," as though that could do much to keep jobs at home. Experts say it can’t.

Analysis

The Obama-Biden campaign’s closing arguments have included some oft-repeated but still unlikely promises. Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin, meanwhile, served up some new misleading claims in the waning days of the campaign. We examine their final pitch to voters in another article, "Closing Arguments: McCain." Here we take one last look at Sen. Barack Obama’s claims.

Obama’s Promises

In a move not seen since Ross Perot in 1996, Obama offered his closing argument in a half-hour infomercial on Oct. 29. Among his more eye-opening statements was his claim to have "offered spending cuts above and beyond" the cost of his proposals. Obama is one-upping himself: When he accepted the Democratic nomination, Obama said that he would "pay for every dime" of his new programs with spending cuts. We called the claim misleading two months ago. It’s no truer now. Independent budget experts say that Obama’s proposals will increase the already swollen federal deficit substantially.

The nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget just revised its "Promises, Promises" guide, and now says Obama’s tax and spending proposals – in the unlikely event that Congress enacted them unchanged –  would add anywhere between $262 billion and $316 billion to the federal deficit in 2013, the final year of the next president’s first term. The CRFB has increased its estimate of the likely cost of Obama’s health care plan and now figures it could cost anywhere from $52 billion to $106 billion per year when fully phased in. And since the Congressional Budget Office recently projected the deficit in 2013 to be $147 billion if no laws are changed, that would mean a tsunami of red ink. (For comparison, the U.S. just racked up a record $455 billion deficit in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.) And keep in mind, the CBO’s projection was issued nearly two months ago and doesn’t take into account passage of the $700 billion bailout package and worsening economy. (The Dow Jones Industrial Average is down nearly 17 percent since the CBO’s projection was issued.)

Obama himself concedes that he probably won’t be able to fulfill his promises, at least not right away. He acknowledged on Sept. 30 that, in light of the financial crisis, "it is likely that some useful programs or policies that I’ve proposed on the campaign trail may need to be delayed." But that bow to fiscal reality didn’t make it into his infomercial.

For the record, McCain’s promises are hardly more realistic than Obama’s. According to the CRFB, he’d increase the deficit by anywhere from $229 billion to $400 billion by 2013. And the Tax Policy Center, also a highly regarded nonpartisan organization full of expert number-crunchers, issued an updated estimate of the effects of both candidates’ tax plans on Sept. 15, in which it said:

Tax Policy Center, Sept. 15: [W]ithout substantial cuts in government spending, both plans would sharply increase the national debt. Including interest costs, Obama’s tax plan would boost the debt by $3.5 trillion by 2018. McCain’s plan would increase the debt by $5 trillion on top of the $2.3 trillion increase that the Congressional Budget Office forecasts for the next decade.

The TPC analysis does not include either candidate’s proposed spending cuts. But the report notes that bringing the budget into balance would "require unprecedented spending cuts under either candidate’s tax plan." Fiscal reality dictates that neither candidate can deliver on all of his promises without incurring tremendous new debt.

Obama’s Health Care Hokum, Again

In his infomercial, Obama claimed "[M]y health care plan includes improving information technology, requires coverage for preventive care and preexisting conditions, and lowers health care costs for the typical family by $2,500 a year." Way back in June when we dug into the accounting behind this claim, an Obama adviser told us that more than half of it is attributed to savings from the widespread adoption of electronic records, at least some of which is expected to go to government, employers and insurance companies. The campaign, we were told, expects a trickle-down effect that could reach consumers in the form of lower taxes, reduced premiums or higher wages. So even if the savings materialized, some of them would be passed along in a variety of ways that might not be seen as lowering health care costs, such as premiums, by $2,500 a year.

The savings estimate, though, is a goal unlikely to be met. Obama’s claim assumes that 90 percent of doctors and hospitals will adopt health IT. But adoption has been slow, and experts say getting to that level of use will take much longer than one presidential term. Estimates vary, but in 2006, the Congressional Budget Office said only 12 percent of physicians and 11 percent of hospitals had electronic records systems.

Dr. Rainu Kaushal, a professor of public health at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, told us that with the right policies, 90 percent adoption is achievable. But, "I think it’s pie in the sky for the next five years," she said. "I think we’re looking more in the eight to 10 [year] range."

And more important, experts also believe that any big-dollar savings from health IT are unlikely to flow through directly to the general public. Catherine Desroches, an instructor at the Harvard Medical School and a researcher at the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital, called the idea of trickle-down premium reductions an “unlikely event.” Despite the doubt expressed by some, Obama has continued to cite this optimistic – to say the least – figure.

Obama’s "Jobs Overseas" Fantasy, Again

Obama’s infomercial, and his closing TV ads, continue to harp on the theme of "tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas," which Obama proposes to eliminate.

We can’t say whether or not he can deliver on that promise, but as we’ve been saying for more than four years now, (and most recently on Sept. 26) eliminating them won’t do much to keep jobs in the U.S. In a recent exchange of e-mails with us, Eric Toder of the Tax Policy Center concluded that eliminating such tax breaks "is a nice political slogan, but will do little or nothing for U.S. employment or incomes."

Still to Come

This is most likely our last article before Election Day. But as you head out to vote Tuesday, or wait for the ballots to be counted, check back for our just-for-fun  "awards" article, in which we’ll look back at some of the ads and claims we may not have gotten around to writing about, but found amusing or notable nevertheless.

– by Brooks Jackson, Lori Robertson, Joe Miller and Viveca Novak 

Sources 

Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. "Promises, Promises: A Fiscal Voter Guide to the 2008 Election." U.S. Budget Watch. 31 Oct 2008. 

Williams, Roberton and Gleckman, Howard, “An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans: Executive Summary – Revised September 15, 2008” Tax Policy Center, 15 Sep 2008. 

Simon, Richard "Federal deficit hits record $455 billion; The shortfall for fiscal 2008 is even larger than had been feared. It is likely to be a key issue as the presidential race winds down." Los Angeles Times 15 Oct 2008.

Congressional Budget Office, "The Budget and Economic Outlook: An Update" 9 Sep 2008.