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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Misleading Claims in Obama’s First 2012 Spot

Dissembling on ethics, jobs and oil imports


President Obama’s first 2012 campaign ad misleads on ethics, “clean-energy” jobs and U.S. dependence on oil imports.

  • The spot uses outdated quotes from groups that said his record on ethics is “unprecedented” and that he “kept a promise to toughen ethics rules.” One of those same groups said later that he “has let down millions of Americans who accepted his word,” and another rated his promise as “broken.”
  • The 30-second TV spot also trumpets a claim of “2.7 million jobs” in “America’s clean-energy industry.” That mostly counts jobs put in place long before Obama took office.
  • Finally, it boasts that U.S. dependence on foreign oil has declined to below 50 percent, as a net share of total demand, for the first time in more than a decade. That’s true, and increasing U.S. oil production is a factor (despite Republican criticisms that Obama is anti-drilling). But economists say the chief factor is reduced oil consumption, brought on by the recent economic recession.


The ad, released Jan. 19, is titled “Unprecedented.” The Obama campaign reports that the 30-second ad is running in Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

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Obama 2012 ad:  “Unprecedented”

Announcer: Secretive oil billionaires attacking President Obama with ads fact checkers say are “not tethered to the facts” while independent watchdogs call this president’s record on ethics “unprecedented.” And America’s clean energy industry: 2.7 million jobs and expanding rapidly. For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent. President Obama “kept his promise to toughen ethics rules” and strengthen America’s energy economy.

Obama: I’m Barack Obama and I approve this message.


Kept, Then Broken

The ad brazenly quotes our fact-checking colleagues at PolitiFact saying that President Barack Obama “kept his promise to toughen ethics rules.” But based on events since that initial finding, PolitiFact has updated its ruling on Obama’s promise to toughen rules against a revolving door for lobbyists, and the site now rates it as a Promise Broken.

That initial PolitiFact assessment cited in the Obama 2012 ad came a day after Obama was sworn in as president, and after Obama had issued an executive order that required every executive agency appointee to sign an ethics pledge that bans gifts from lobbyists, restricted former lobbyists from participating in any matters on which they had previously lobbied, prohibited them from serving in agencies they had lobbied within the previous two years, and prohibited employees from lobbying the Obama administration after they leave.

Based on that order, PolitiFact marked two campaign promises as kept: one involving tougher rules against a revolving door for lobbyists and former officials, and another banning lobbyist gifts to executive employees.

The promise banning lobbyist gifts remains a Promise Kept. But two days after rating the promise to toughen rules against a revolving door for lobbyists and former officials as “kept,” PolitiFact noted that the order included a waiver clause. And, in fact, the administration had already sought two waivers for appointees, including one for William J. Lynn III, a former lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon, who was tapped to be deputy secretary of defense. The promise was downgraded to “Compromise.” It turned out that two other officials received waivers, and that other former lobbyists were simply recused from discussions related to their former lobbying interests. On March 17, 2009, two months after its initial finding, PolitiFact rated it a Promise Broken.

What Have You Done for Me Lately?

There’s also some question about whether the Obama 2012 ad’s claim that “independent watchdogs call this president’s record on ethics ‘unprecedented’ ” is outdated. The ad quoted Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, who were indeed among those who issued a statement praising Obama “for the unprecedented steps he has taken during the first hundred days of his Administration to strengthen ethics, lobbying and transparency rules for the Executive Branch.”

But one of those groups — Common Cause — issued a press release on October 28, 2011, offering a scathing review of Obama’s follow-through on ethics initiatives.

Common Cause press release, Oct. 28, 2011: President Obama’s reliance on Washington’s lobbying community and the wealthy interests behind it as he raises money for his re-election has let down millions of Americans who accepted his word that he would clean up our politics, Common Cause said today.

“The President refuses to hire registered lobbyists or accept their campaign contributions, so as not to be tainted by the companies and groups they represent,” said Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, a non-partisan government watchdog group. “But his campaign is raking in millions of dollars from consultants and law firms working directly with those lobbyists to aid the same companies and groups. It doesn’t square.”

Edgar said a report in Friday’s New York Times, detailing the Obama campaign’s acceptance of more than $5 million raised by 15 “bundlers” working for Washington-based lobbying firms fits an unfortunate pattern.

“The President promised he’d fix the broken public financing system for our Presidential campaigns, but he has not done so. He called for tougher campaign finance disclosure laws after Citizens United, but he has yet to sign an executive order that would compel disclosure of political spending by government contractors,” Edgar said.

“Now we learn that despite his well-publicized antipathy for lobbyists, or at least registered lobbyists, the President’s campaign is only too willing to join his Republican adversaries in taking money from special interests.

“What the President should be doing– indeed should have done long ago — is pushing for a comprehensive political reform program, one that makes all political spending transparent, stops corporate, trade group and other special interest efforts to buy our elections, and puts small gifts from individual donors at the center of our campaign finance system.”

Another group that signed the original “unprecedented” statement still stands by that assessment today, however. Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer stated to us: “Our statements in the original release praising the Administration were about the efforts made by the Administration to strengthen Executive Branch ethics rules. I know of no other Administration that has done as much on Executive Branch ethics as the Obama Administration which is why my assessment that these efforts were unprecedented has not changed.”

Hogging Credit?

The Obama 2012 ad also cites statistics on clean-energy jobs and a lessening dependence on foreign oil. But it’s dubious whether Obama deserves full credit for either.

The ad states: “America’s clean-energy industry: 2.7 million jobs and expanding rapidly.”

The ad accurately cites figures from a report from the Brookings Institution, which estimated the “clean economy … employs some 2.7 million workers.” But the report cited a trend line that began long before Obama took office.

Brookings Institution, July 13, 2011: Overall, today’s clean economy establishments added half a million jobs between 2003 and 2010, expanding at an annual rate of 3.4 percent.

The Brookings report did find “a sizable and diverse array of industry segments that is—in key private-sector areas—expanding rapidly at a time of sluggish national growth.” And Obama’s stimulus package no doubt goosed clean-energy employment. The administration’s Council of Economic Advisers estimated investments in the stimulus were responsible for 224,500 clean-energy jobs.

The ad also states, “For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent.” But again, it’s questionable how much credit Obama gets for that. The same Energy Information Administration report cited in the ad concluded that the downward trend began in 2005 and was based on a “variety of factors,” most of them outside Obama’s control.

EIA report, 2011: There is no single explanation for the decline in U.S. oil import dependence since 2005. Rather, the trend results from a variety of factors. Chief among those is a significant contraction in consumption. U.S. oil product deliveries declined by 1.7 million barrels per day (bbl/d) to 19.1 bbl/d in 2010, from 20.8 million bbl/d in 2005. This decline partly reflects the downturn in the underlying economy after the financial crisis of 2008. Not surprisingly, demand has bounced back somewhat from a low of 18.8 million bbl/d in 2009, when the U.S. economy bottomed out. But the downward trend in consumption started two years before the 2008 crisis and reflects factors such as changes in efficiency and consumer behavior as well as patterns of economic growth.

Again, this is the first TV salvo from the Obama 2012 campaign. Only nine-and-a-half months to go until the general election!

— by Robert Farley

Correction, Jan. 21: The lead of our original article said incorrectly that “same groups” that called Obama’s record “unprecedented” had later said he “let down millions of Americans who accepted his word.” Only Common Cause did that. We have rephrased our article to remove any implication that Democracy 21 has changed its stance.


Statement Issued by Common Cause, Democracy 21, League of Women Voters, Public Citizen and U.S. PIRG. “Reform Groups Strongly Praise President Obama’s Government Integrity Reform Measures during First Hundred Days.” 28 April 2009.

Muro, Mark, Rothwell, Jonathan and Saha Devashree. “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment.” Brookings Institution.  13 Jul 2011.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. “U.S. Oil Import Dependence: declining no matter how you measure it.” 25 May 2011.

Common Cause. Press release: “Sadly, President Obama’s fundraising from lobbyists is more of the same.” 28 Oct 2011.

Drobnic Holan, Angie. Obameter Promise: Ban lobbyist gifts to executive employees. “Obama signs executive order on lobbyists and gifts.” PolitiFact. 21 Jan 2009.

Drobnic Holan, Angie. Obameter Promise: Tougher rules against revolving door for lobbyists and former officials. “Former lobbyist in the White House? It’s okay if they say it’s okay.” PolitiFact. 17 Mar 2009.

White House website. Executive Order: Ethics Pledge. 21 Jan 2009.

White House website. Press release: “Council of Economic Advisers Releases New Quarterly Analysis on Job and Economic Impact of the Recovery Act.” 18 Nov 2010.