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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama Fudges Facts in Philly

In a speech to House Democrats, President Barack Obama stretched the facts to underscore political points about national security and the improving economy.

  • Obama quoted a Republican as saying it’s “not the end of the world” to “have the Department of Homeland Security not functioning.” Actually, the congressman said Homeland Security would still function even if Congress fails to meet a funding deadline, so it would not be “the end of the world” to miss the deadline.
  • Obama also boasted that “there is no economic metric by which we are not better off than when I took office.” Here are a few: The number of long-term unemployed has risen, as has average duration of their joblessness; the number of Americans receiving food stamps is up; and the rate of home ownership is down.

The comments came during a short speech Obama delivered at the House Democratic Issues Conference in Philadelphia on Jan. 29.

‘End of the World’?

For weeks, Republicans have been threatening to hold up Homeland Security Department funding as a means to thwart President Obama’s executive action to halt some deportations. The immigration plan announced by Obama on Nov. 20 provides a temporary relief of three years from the threat of deportation to parents who are in the country illegally but who have children who are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents — a plan that is estimated to apply to 5 million people.

In his speech in Philadelphia, Obama chastised an unnamed Republican congressman for downplaying the consequences of allowing a Feb. 27 funding deadline for Homeland Security to lapse.

Obama, Jan. 29: I disagree with any Republican who says letting funding for the Department of Homeland Security lapse is “not the end of the world.” That’s a quote from one of them. I tell you, these are the guys who are always saying they’re concerned about the borders. These are the folks who say they’re concerned about terrorism. Well, who do you think helps monitor our borders? What do you mean, “It’s not the end of the world”? That’s all you’ve been talking about. And now, suddenly, because you want to make a political point, you think that we can afford to have the Department of Homeland Security not functioning — because of political games in Washington?

The quote in question came from Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, in a story published by Politico, and it was taken out of context.

Obama says the congressman said it’s “not the end of the world” to “have the Department of Homeland Security not functioning,” but Diaz-Balart was clearly making the point that Homeland Security would continue functioning, even if the funding deadline is missed.

Politico, Jan. 28: Lessening the urgency, in some minds, of passing a Homeland Security funding bill is the fact that DHS’s operations wouldn’t necessarily shut down if funding expires after Feb. 27. In the October 2013 federal government shutdown, roughly 85 percent of DHS employees continued to work because their jobs were considered essential. However, their paychecks were withheld until the shutdown was over.

“In other words, it’s not the end of the world if we get to that time because the national security functions will not stop — whether it’s border security or a lot of other issues,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said, though he stressed that Congress shouldn’t ignore that deadline. “Having said so, I think we should always aspire to try to get it done.”

In the event of a funding lapse, DHS employees whose jobs are deemed “necessary for safety of human life or protection of property” are expected to continue working. That includes people responsible for criminal law enforcement operations, cargo inspections, counter-terrorism watches and intelligence gathering.

A Congressional Research Service report published on Oct. 24, 2013, found that during the shutdown three weeks prior, “While an estimated 31,295 employees were furloughed, roughly 85 percent of the department’s workforce continued with their duties that day, due to exceptions identified in current interpretations of law.”

On the day of the shutdown, Gillian Christensen, press secretary at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, assured that immigration enforcement would continue unimpeded.

“ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, as well as ICE Homeland Security Investigations will remain operational under a government shutdown because they have been deemed law enforcement necessary for the safety of life and protection of property,” she said in a statement.

It was precisely because those essential, national security functions would not stop in the event of a funding lapse that Diaz-Balart said missing the Feb. 27 deadline was “not the end of the world.”

Economic Metrics

At one point in his speech, Obama fired off a shotgun blast of statistics about improvements to the American economy, but it was the very last one that caught our attention.

Obama, Jan. 29: We’ve seen 11 million jobs created, best job growth since the ‘90s, best job growth in manufacturing since the ‘90s; steepest drop in the unemployment rate in 30 years; deficit cut by two-thirds; over 10 million people with health insurance that didn’t have it before. We’ve seen reading scores go up, high school graduation rates go up, more young people attending college than ever before. We’re number one in oil production; number one in natural gas production; doubled clean energy production; solar power up tenfold; wind power up threefold; carbon pollution down. There is no economic metric by which we are not better off than when I took office.

Our latest “Obama’s Numbers” piece in January includes a number of positive indicators for the economy under Obama. As we wrote, the economy has now gained nearly five times more jobs under Obama than it did during the presidency of George W. Bush; the unemployment rate has dropped to just below the historical average; real weekly earnings are up 1.7 percent, thanks in part to a plunge in gasoline prices; corporate profits have nearly tripled; and stock prices have soared.

But Obama went too far with the boast that, “There is no economic metric by which we are not better off than when I took office.”

As we noted in our story, “The number of Americans receiving food stamps remains 45 percent higher than when the president first took office, and the rate of home ownership has dropped by 3.2 percentage points, to the lowest point in nearly 20 years.”

And while the official figures show that the U.S. had 6,371,000 more people employed in December than it did when Obama took office in 2009, there are nearly 2.8 million people suffering from long-term unemployment — which is defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as being out of work for 27 weeks or longer. That is 86,000 higher than it was when Obama entered office. And the average number of weeks that the unemployed have been without work is 32.8 weeks — which is 13 weeks longer than the average duration of joblessness when Obama took office.

As for Obama’s claim that we are seeing the “best job growth in manufacturing since the ’90s,” that’s true if measured since January 2010. The U.S. has seen an increase of 777,000 manufacturing jobs between then and now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there has been a net loss of manufacturing jobs during the president’s time in office.

Republicans also have been quick to point to a decrease in the civilian labor force participation rate, which has now declined by 3 percentage points since Obama became president, to the lowest point since 1978. But that’s not entirely due to “discouraged workers” dropping out because they believe no jobs are available, as those Republican critics suggest.

As we noted when we wrote about this trend last year, other labor-force dropouts include members of the baby-boom generation who are retiring in droves. They also include disabled workers gaining Social Security disability benefits (a number that has doubled in the past 17 years, and is up 20 percent just since Obama took office). Also, the declining participation rate trend predates Obama and is expected to continue after he leaves office. The rate declined 1.4 percent under Obama’s predecessor, and a Labor Department economist, looking at current demographic trends, predicts further declines through at least 2022.

But no matter the causes of these trends, no one could credibly argue that the economic metrics mentioned above are “better off” under Obama.

— Robert Farley