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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

100 Days of Spin

What Obama said -- and what has been said about him.


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

Nevertheless, we find that the president has occasionally made claims that put him and his policies in a better light than the facts warrant. He has claimed that private economists agreed with the forecast in his budget, when they were really more pessimistic. He’s used Bush-like budget-speak trying to sound frugal while raising spending to previously unimagined levels. And he has exaggerated the problems his proposals aim to cure by misstating facts about school drop-out rates and oil imports.

At the same time, there’s been no shortage of dubious claims made about the president by his political opponents. Republicans have falsely claimed that Obama planned to spend billions on a levitating train and that his stimulus bill would require doctors to follow government orders on what medical treatments can and can’t be prescribed, among other nonsense.

And those whoppers are mild compared with some of the positively deranged claims flying about the Internet. No, the national service bill Obama signed won’t prevent anybody from going to church, for example. And no, he’s not trying to send Social Security checks to illegal immigrants.


Economic Cheerleading

Facing some heat from critics who complained that the administration’s budget figures are too rosy, Obama offered a misleading defense to a national TV audience during his March 24 prime-time news conference. 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, since a weaker economic performance will produce even larger federal deficits than the Obama budget already forecasts.

Obama’s Prime Time Pitch
March 25


Obama also got it wrong when he claimed in that same 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.

Furthermore, he used the same verbal sleight-of-hand that President George W. 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.

Obama’s Prime Time Pitch
March 25

Presidential Puffery

We’ve noted a tendency for Obama to puff up the problems he’s facing, as well as the solutions he’s proposing. For example:
  • He told a joint session of Congress Feb. 24 that “we import more oil today than ever before.” That’s untrue. Imports peaked in 2005 and are lower today.Fact-Checking Obama’s Speech
    Feb. 25
  • 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.Fact-Checking Obama’s Speech
    Feb. 25
  • He claimed in a March 10 address on education that the high school dropout rate has “tripled in the past 30 years.” But according to the Department of Education, it has actually declined by a third.Education Spin
    March 18

We’ve also found Obama being 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 it’s far from a certainty. The immediate reality, however, is that the economy has been losing an average of 22,000 jobs per day since Obama took office.

Stimulus Bill Bravado
Feb. 13

Another example occurred April 16 during his visit to Mexico. Obama wanted his hosts to crack down on the violent drug trade and was promising that the U.S. would do its bit, too. But he went too far when he said, “More than 90 percent of the guns recovered in Mexico come from the United States.” It’s true that U.S. officials say that more than 90 percent of the guns Mexican officials ask them to trace are found to have come through the U.S. But Mexican officials don’t ask the U.S. to trace all the guns they recover, so there’s no way to know exactly how many come through the U.S.

Counting Mexico’s Guns
April 17

Republican Spin

Of course, we’ve noted plenty of false claims made by Obama’s critics, too.

  • Republican Rep. Tom Price of Georgia claimed Obama’s stimulus bill created “a national health care rationing board,” when in fact it did nothing of the sort.Doctor’s Orders?
    Feb. 20
  • A number of House and Senate Republicans claimed that Obama’s 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, Calif., and Las Vegas; the $8 billion is now being directed to 10 other passenger routes using more conventional technology.GOP Stimulus Myths
    Feb. 24

Internet Dementia

The wildest claims about Obama continue to come from anonymous chain e-mails that spread like viruses. Some notable examples:

  • There’s no evidence that Obama dithered and delayed the rescue by Navy SEALs of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates, as claimed in a quick-spreading e-mail full of military jargon. The retired rear admiral who (in some versions) supposedly wrote it told us he’s not the author, and that he never even met a Navy SEAL. The message’s central claims are false, according to both White House and Pentagon officials.Did Obama delay the rescue of Captain Phillips?
    April 24
  • Nobody will be prevented from going to church by the national service bill Obama signed on April 21, and students won’t be forced into slave-like forced labor either. The bill actually had broad support from Republican lawmakers, many of whom enthusiastically joined Democrats to pass it. It greatly expands such existing programs as VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America).Is Congress creating a mandatory public service system? Are participants not allowed to go to church?
    March 31
  • And there’s no point in sending Obama a petition asking him to veto a bill to pay Social Security benefits to illegal immigrants, as urged in yet another viral message. Obama has never supported such a move, and there’s no such bill anyway.
    Is Congress about to give Social Security to illegal immigrants?

    March 1

None of this surprises us. Spin, fact-twisting and deceptive claims have been standard fare in Washington for a long time, and we doubt that will change. It’s just part of the messy process we know as democracy, and it’s our job to help citizens sort through all that.

by Brooks Jackson