A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sorry Statistics


Q: Do statistics in a chain e-mail give an accurate "report card" of President Obama’s first two years?

A: Not exactly. The author made many minor mistakes and some major omissions in describing the terrible economic conditions he attributes to the president.

FULL QUESTION

The latest in crunchy chain e-mail goodness.  Please validate or debunk. Thanks.

 

Two years ago on January 20th, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president of the United States. Are you better off today than you were two years ago? Numbers don’t lie, and here are the data on the impact he has had on the lives of Americans.

 

[EET ]

Just take this last item: In the last two years we have accumulated national debt at a rate more than 27 times as fast as during the rest of our entire nation’s history. Over 27 times as fast! Metaphorically, speaking, if you are driving in the right lane doing 65 MPH and a car rockets past you in the left lane 27 times faster . .. . it would be doing 1,755 MPH! This is a disaster!

Sources:

(1) U.S. Energy Information Administration; (2) Wall Street Journal; (3) Bureau of Labor Statistics; (4) Census Bureau; (5) USDA; (6) U.S. Dept. of Labor; (7) FHFA; (8) Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller; (9) RealtyTrac; (10) Heritage Foundation and WSJ; (11) The Conference Board; (12) FDIC; (13) Federal Reserve; (14) U.S. Treasury [/EET]

 

FULL ANSWER

This one-sided compilation of statistics is drawn — selectively — from an article that appeared on the American Thinker blog on Jan. 20, 2011, under the headline "Report Card on Obama’s First Two Years" by K.E. Campbell. An e-mail version, containing an additional comment about the national debt figures — and omitting a number of the American Thinker statistics that could be seen as favorable to Obama — has been circulating widely since then. We have received a steady stream of inquiries about its accuracy. We contacted the editor of American Thinker, Thomas Lifson, who said he would pass a message on to Mr. Campbell for us, but we have not heard from Campbell.

The original article presents what it calls "data on the impact [Obama] has had on the lives of Americans," showing changes since the president took office Jan. 20, 2009. From these, the anonymous author of the chain e-mail has made a lopsided selection of 24 indicators. The numbers in the e-mail include higher gasoline and oil prices, higher unemployment, higher numbers of bank failures, a higher level of poverty, lower household incomes and a rising national debt.

Many Minor Mistakes

It’s true that nearly all those indicators were worse on the second anniversary of Obama’s inauguration than they were when he took office. Our research turns up numerous mistakes and inaccuracies in the original article, but for the most part, they are insignificant. For example, we found:

  • The price of regular gasoline was up 69.26 percent, not 69.6 percent as claimed.
  • The price of gold rose 57.7 percent, not 60.5 percent.
  • Real median household income fell 1.05 percent, not 0.7 percent.
  • The national debt rose 32.27 percent, not 32.2 percent.

Many of the mistakes were biased against Obama. For example, the author cited a 21 percent decline in the Conference Board’s “Present Situation Index,” an indicator of how consumers feel about their current economic situation. But that was based on where the index stood in December. Figures released a few days after the blog post was published showed a big jump in January, and so it is now clear that this index showed consumers feeling slightly better about the economy at the end of Obama’s first two years than they did when he took office. But the biggest mistake we found was actually in Obama’s favor. The author claimed that the number of bank failures rose 17 percent, but we found the actual increase was 493 percent (using the time period chosen by the author).

The author was writing prior to release of January’s unemployment figures, so his statistics fail to give Obama credit for the improvement those figures showed. When doing a full, two-year comparison, we found:

  • The unemployment rate was 15.38 percent higher, not 23.7 percent.
  • The number of unemployed persons was 15.7 percent higher, not 24.7 percent.
  • The number of long-term unemployed (those out of work 27 weeks or longer) was 131 percent higher, not 146 percent.

The author says "numbers don’t lie," yet he sometimes just got them wrong. He claimed that the Heritage Foundation ranked the U.S. at No. 5 in its "Economic Freedom World Rankings" when Obama took office, for example. Actually, the ratings released the week before Obama was sworn in had the U.S. at No. 6.

The author asked, "Are you better off today than you were two years ago?" But he sometimes used figures that are ambiguous. He claimed the price of corn rose 78 percent and the price of soybeans rose 42 percent. (They actually rose slightly less than that.) But either way, those figures are quite favorable to corn and soybean farmers — not to mention rural bankers and makers of farm equipment.

Furthermore, the prices that consumers pay for food have risen quite slowly during the past two years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rise in food prices as measured by the Consumer Price Index was up by less than 1.5 percent in January, compared with the month of Obama’s inauguration.

Major Omissions

The e-mail author omits other economic statistics that would put Obama’s tenure in a more favorable light. For example, he or she makes no mention of the following:

  • Obama inherited the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. It began in December 2007 and ended a few months after Obama took office, in June 2009, according to economists who make up the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
  • The stock market has roared back since Obama took office. The S&P 500 Index increased nearly 59 percent — rising from 805.22 on Jan. 20, 2009, to 1,280.26 two years later. (The American Thinker article mentioned big increases in the S&P 500 and in other stock-market indicators as well, but the author of the viral e-mail omitted them.)
  • A total of 4.4 million jobs had been lost before Obama took office, including 820,000 the month he was sworn in. And although employment continued to slide after the economy bottomed out, and has been agonizingly slow to recover, more than 1 million jobs have been added since payrolls hit their low point early last year.

Some other indicators given by the American Thinker author — but left out of the viral e-mail — show overall inflation at under 2 percent per year and a surge in the Consumer Confidence Index.

It’s not our job to say whether Obama has done a good job or a bad job. But this viral e-mail "report card" is one-sided and filled with errors. For what it’s worth, here is a corrected "report card" giving more accurate figures for the indicators cited in the e-mail, footnoted with precise citations of sources. Following our usual practice, we also provide hyperlinks to our online sources to allow readers to verify the numbers for themselves.

— Brooks Jackson, with Lori Robertson, Lara Seligman and Lauren Hitt

Sources

1. U.S. Energy information Administration, "Weekly U.S. Regular All Formulations Retail Gasoline Prices (Dollars per Gallon)" (Week ending 1/26/2009 vs week ending 1/24/2011) Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

2. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Europe Brent Spot Price FOB (Dollars per Barrel)" (20 Jan 2009 vs. 20 Jan 2011) Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

3. U.S. Energy Information Administration, "Cushing, OK WTI Spot Price FOB (Dollars per Barrel)" (20 Jan 2009 vs. 20 Jan 2011) Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

4. The London  Bullion Market Association, "2009 London Gold Fixings" and "2011 London Gold Fixings," PM prices in U.S. Dollars, 20 Jan 2009 vs. 20 Jan 2011. Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, "Central Illinois Corn Processor Report" (Low bid price for U.S. 2 Yellow Corn) 20 Jan 2009 and 20 Jan 2011. Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

6. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, "Central Illinois Soybean Processor Report" (Low bid price for U.S. 1 yellow soybeans) 20 Jan 2009 and 20 Jan 2011. Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

7. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, "World and U.S. Sugar and Corn Sweetener Prices, Table 3a – World raw sugar price, spot, monthly, quarterly, and by calendar and fiscal year" Spreadsheet accessed 19 Feb 2011.

8. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey," unemployment rate, Jan 2009 vs. Jan 2011. Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

9. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Table A-2. Employment status of the civilian population by race, sex, and age " (choose "Black or African Americans – Unemployment Rate"  Jan 2009 vs. Jan 2011) Accessed 19 Feb. 2011.

10. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey" (choose Unemployed – Seasonally Adjusted – Monthly, Jan 2009 vs. Jan 2011) Accessed 19 Feb 2011.

11. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Employment, Hours and Earnings from the Current Employment Statistics Survey," (Choose All Employees – Government – Federal – Seasonally Adjusted) Jan 2009 vs Jan 2011. Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

12. U.S. Census Bureau, "Median Household Income by State: 1984 to 2009" ("Real" income as measured in 2009 dollars) Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

13. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service "SUPPLEMENTAL NUTRITION ASSISTANCE PROGRAM
( Data as of January 31, 2011)
" Accessed 20 Feb 2011. (Note: Most recent monthly data are for November, 2010.)

14. U.S. Department of Labor, "Program Statistics" (Choose "Persons Claiming UI Benefits in Federal Programs (Expanded)") Average for four weeks ending 24 Jan 2009 vs. 25 Dec 2010 (the most recent figures available) Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

15. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Number Unemployed for 27 Weeks & over, seasonally adjusted." (Choose "27 weeks or over – seasonally adjusted – retrieve data) Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

16. U.S. Census Bureau, "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2009" Sep 2010.

17. U.S. Census Bureau, "Table 2. Poverty Status of People by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin: 1959 to 2009" Sep 2010"  All People Below Poverty, 2008 vs 2009. Sep 2011; Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

18A. Heritage Foundation, "2009 Index of Economic Freedom" 13 Jan 2009; 6.

18B. Heritage Foundation, "2011 Index of Economic Freedom" 13 Jan 2011; 6.

19A. Travel Agent Central, "Consumer Confidence Index Dips In January" 28 Jan 2009.

19B. The Conference Board, "The Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index® Increases" press release, 25 Jan 2011.

20A. U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "Bank Failures in Brief, 2008," "Bank Failures in Brief, 2009,"and "Bank Failures in Brief, 2010" Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

20B. U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "First Southern Bank, Boca Raton, Florida, Assumes All of the Deposits of First Commercial Bank of Florida, Orlando, Florida" press release 7 Jan. 2011.

20C. U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "Enterprise Bank & Trust, St. Louis, Missouri, Assumes All of the Deposits of Legacy Bank, Scottsdale, Arizona" press release 7 Jan. 2011.

20D. U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. "Bank of the Ozarks, Little Rock, Arkansas, Assumes All of the Deposits of Oglethorpe Bank, Brunswick, Georgia" press release 7 Jan. 2011.

21. The Wall Street Journal Market Data Center "Exchange Rates: New York Closing Snapshot" 20 Jan 2009 vs. 20 Jan 2011. Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

22. U.S. Federal Reserve Board, "Monthly Historical Money Stock Tables, Table 1, Money Stock Measures" 17 Feb 2011. (M1, Seasonally Adjusted, Jan 2009 vs. Jan 2011.)  Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

23. U.S. Federal Reserve Board, "Monthly Historical Money Stock Tables, Table 1, Money Stock Measures" 17 Feb 2011. (M2, Seasonally Adjusted, Jan 2009 vs. Jan 2011.)  Accessed 20 Feb 2011.

24. U.S. Treasury, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It" Total Public Debt Outstanding, 20 Jan 2009 vs. 20 Jan 2011. Accessed 20 Feb. 2011.