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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Whoppers

A look back at fact-checking the 44th president of the United States


In his farewell address, President Barack Obama quoted his mother when he spoke about the virtue of honesty. “[A]s my mother used to tell me,” Obama said, “reality has a way of catching up with you.”

The president speaks from some experience.

For years, Obama repeated his promise that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” However, reality caught up with the president in 2013, when insurance companies began to cancel policies that did not meet the new requirements of the Affordable Care Act, and Obama was forced to apologize.

That wasn’t the only time when reality caught up with Obama. As he prepares to leave office after eight years, we look back at some of the more egregious falsehoods uttered by a president who did not always follow his mother’s advice.


President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law on March 23, 2010. It was the most significant health care law since Medicaid and Medicare were established in 1965. It was “a big [expletive deleted] deal,” to quote Vice President Joe Biden.

But the president’s signature accomplishment — which helped reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 20.2 million people — has been under partisan attack from Day 1. It passed without a single Republican vote in the House or Senate, and it is now on track to be repealed by a Republican-controlled Congress. Republican President-elect Donald Trump has promised to provide a replacement plan shortly after the Senate confirms his nominee for secretary of health and human services.

The yearslong partisan battle over the health care law made it the most distorted piece of legislation we have ever followed. We have seen it all, from the twisted claim that the law set up death panels to the bizarre claim that patients would be implanted with microchips.

Several of the claims on the list of Obama’s whoppers deal with the law that would become known as Obamacare.

‘If You Like Your Health Care Plan …’

On Aug. 15, 2009, Obama held a town hall event on health care in Grand Junction, Colorado, as part of his effort to lobby public support for what would become the Affordable Care Act.

The audience cheered as Obama told his audience, “I just want to be completely clear about this; I keep on saying this but somehow folks aren’t listening — if you like your health care plan, you keep your health care plan.”

A few days later, we wrote that Obama could not keep that promise. In that article, “Keep Your Insurance? Not Everyone,” we wrote that Obama “ignores the fact that employers may well choose to buy a different health insurance plan once any health coverage overhaul takes effect.”

And that wasn’t the only reason. As we wrote in 2012, “those who buy private coverage on their own may have to get a new plan if theirs doesn’t cover minimum benefit standards, which are yet to be determined.”

After the minimum benefit standards were set, the ACA marketplace opened for business on Oct. 1, 2013. Almost immediately, some individual policyholders began to receive cancellation notices from their insurance companies. By Nov. 14, 2013, Obama announced a temporary fix to address the problem and admitted that he made some assumptions about the law that were incorrect. “[T]hat’s something I deeply regret because it’s scary getting a cancellation notice,” Obama said.

Keep Your Insurance? Not Everyone. Aug. 18, 2009

Obama’s Glowing Assessment, March 4, 2010

A Final Weekend of Whoppers? March 19, 2010

Romney, Obama Uphold Health Care Falsehoods, June 28, 2012

Whoppers of 2012, Early Edition, July 20, 2012

Reality Confronts Obama’s False Promise, Oct. 29, 2013

Other Health Care Claims

Untrue Anecdote: In his zeal to expand health care coverage, Obama also claimed in a speech to Congress that an insurance company was responsible for the death of an Illinois cancer patient. It wasn’t.

As Obama told the story, Otto Raddatz of Downers Grove, Illinois, had his cancer treatment delayed when his coverage was canceled. “They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it,” Obama said in his Sept. 9, 2009, speech.

The Fortis Insurance Co. did briefly cancel Raddatz’s coverage in 2005, claiming that he did not disclose that he had had gallstones. But, as Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times reported, Fortis rescinded its cancellation and Raddatz’s treatment went forward.

Peggy Raddatz told a House committee in June 2009 that the interruption in her brother’s coverage lasted a few weeks and shortly after he was able to get a successful stem cell transplant that extended his life by three-and-a-half years. He died Jan. 6, 2009.

Sweet: Another Stretch by Obama, Sept. 13, 2009

Too Good to Check? Sept. 18, 2009

Another Untrue Anecdote: In 2011, we learned that another Obama anecdote he used to promote his health care plan also turned out not to be true. This anecdote was about his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.

Before and after he became president, Obama told the story about his mother’s battles with her health insurance carrier. He claimed that she was nearly denied health insurance coverage for a preexisting condition while she was dying. But in 2011, author Janny Scott published a biography, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.” And in it, she wrote that Dunham’s fight was over disability coverage (which was not affected by Obama’s health care law) and not over medical insurance coverage.

The author, who had access to Dunham’s letters to her insurance company, wrote of Obama: “Though he often suggested that she was denied health coverage because of a pre-existing condition, it appears from her correspondence that she was only denied disability coverage.”

Obama’s Untrue Anecdote, July 14, 2011

Lower Premiums: As a candidate in 2008, Obama claimed that if elected “we’ll lower premiums by up to $2,500 for a typical family per year” in his first term. As president in 2009, he said that his health care plan if enacted — coupled with some voluntary measures by the private sector — “could save families $2,500 in the coming years – $2,500 per family.”

In 2008, we reviewed his campaign’s evidence for the promised savings and found Obama’s “statements to be overly optimistic, misleading and, to some extent, contradicted by one of his own advisers. And it masks the true cost of his plan to cover millions of Americans who now have no health insurance.”

In 2009, when Obama repeated the savings figure, we cautioned families not to start spending that $2,500 just yet. At that point, the newly elected president had proposed a reduction in the growth of national health spending, not a reduction in costs below then-current levels.

It turned out that employer-sponsored premiums, and health care spending overall, did increase at low and moderate rates, but it’s unclear how much of an impact the ACA has had. Experts with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services have said that the health care law has had a “minimal” impact on the slowdown in growth. It was largely the economy that affected the growth of health spending.

As we wrote earlier this month, premiums for employer-sponsored family plans grew an average 63 percent from 2001 to 2006, an average 31 percent from 2006 to 2011, and an average 20 percent from 2011 to 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s annual Employer Health Benefits Survey.

Obama’s Inflated Health Savings, June 16, 2008

Health Savings Still Optimistic, May 15, 2009

Seven Falsehoods About Health Care, Aug. 14, 2009

ACA and the Constitution: In defending the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act at a 2012 news conference, Obama made the wildly wrong claim that it would be “unprecedented” for the Supreme Court to overturn the health care law.

In fact, striking down unconstitutional laws has been part of the Supreme Court’s job description for more than two centuries.

A day later, when pressed on this point, the president acknowledged that “the Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws.” Obama, who once taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, said that he was trying to make the point that “the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.” But “significant restraint” is not the same as “unprecedented.”

As it turned out, the court upheld the law as constitutional two months after Obama’s remarks.

Obama Eats His Words, April 4, 2012

Rewriting History

On more than one occasion, the president backtracked on past statements and then tried to rewrite history by claiming he had not changed his position.

Perhaps the most famous of these whoppers is the “red line” he set in Syria.

In a press conference on Aug. 20, 2012, Obama was asked whether he “envision[ed] using U.S. military” in Syria “if simply for nothing else, the safekeeping of the chemical weapons.” Twice Obama said that the movement or use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said at one point.

Nevertheless, Obama a year later insisted that it wasn’t his red line, but rather a line set by the international community and by Congress. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line; the world set a red line,” he said.

As we said at the time, Obama may have had some justification for drawing a red line based on international conventions, but the decision to tie U.S. military involvement to Assad using chemical weapons was his decision.

Obama’s Blurry Red Line, Sept. 6, 2013

ISIS and the JV Team: Obama also denied that he once dismissed the terrorist Islamic State group as “the jayvee team,” meaning junior varsity. But he did exactly that.

In a Sept. 7, 2014, interview, Obama said he “wasn’t specifically referring” to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, when he made the JV reference during an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker in January of that year. But the magazine article and a transcript of the interview — which Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler obtained — showed that Obama was referring to ISIS when he said “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The transcript showed that Obama made that remark when Remnick asked about the resurgence of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in Iraq, Syria and Africa, which would include ISIS. Remnick responded by saying, “But that jayvee team jus[t] took over Fallujah,” a specific reference to ISIS.

Obama Fumbles ‘JV Team’ Question, Sept. 8, 2014

Immigration: In 2014, Obama also tried to rewrite history by claiming that his “position hasn’t changed” regarding his legal authority to issue sweeping executive orders on immigration.

Obama took executive action in 2012 that allowed DREAMers — those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children — to apply for work permits without fear of deportation for two years, subject to renewal, if they met certain requirements. The president was pressed to expand that authority to protect a much larger group from deportation, to prevent the breakup of families. Repeatedly, Obama pushed back by claiming he did not have the legal authority to expand that policy, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

On Feb. 14, 2013, Obama said during a Google Hangout interview that the administration had “kind of stretched our administrative flexibility as much as we can” when it created DACA. “I’m the president of the United States. I’m not the emperor of the United States,” he said.

Several months later, Obama was specifically asked if he would “at least consider unilaterally freezing the deportations for parents of deferred-action kids.” Again, Obama said he could not.

“[I]f we start broadening that, then essentially I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally,” Obama said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo on Sept. 17, 2013. “So that’s not an option.”

But then Obama had a change of heart. In November 2014, the president announced he would expand deferred deportation to the parents of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who have lived in the United States for five years or longer. The administration estimated that the new policy could protect up to 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

On Nov. 16, 2014, Jim Avila of ABC News asked Obama about his earlier comments regarding his limited legal authority to act on immigration. “Mr. President, what has changed since then?” Avila asked.

Obama insisted “my position hasn’t changed.” It did.

Obama’s Immigration Amnesia, Nov. 18, 2014


During the 2008 election, Obama campaigned on a promise to end the Bush-era income tax cuts for families earning $250,000 or more (and individuals earning $200,000 or more), but once in office he was forced to compromise on that promise. In late 2012, Obama and the GOP-controlled Congress kept the tax cuts in place for all taxpayers except those families that earned $450,000 or more (and individuals earning $400,000 or more).

Until then, Obama spent a good portion of his first term pressing for tax increases on high-income taxpayers — providing us with fact-checking fodder.

In arguing for higher tax rates for the wealthy, Obama claimed in 2011 that he paid a lower tax rate than a teacher making $50,000 a year. Our calculations proved that false.

A single taxpayer with $50,000 of income would have paid less than half the effective rate paid by the Obamas in 2008, 2009 or 2010. In addition, if the $50,000-a-year teacher were supporting a spouse and two children — like Obama — he or she would have paid no federal income taxes at all.

Obama’s Teacher Tax Whopper, Sept. 28, 2011

Buffett Rule: In advocating for the “Buffett Rule,” Obama left the false impression that many, if not most, millionaires are paying a lower tax rate than the middle class.

The “Buffett Rule,” the president explained in an April 10, 2012, speech, is “very simple: If you make more than $1 million a year … you should pay the same percentage of your income in taxes as middle-class families do.” Sounds good, but in fact most already do.

Even without the Buffett Rule, “more than 99 percent of millionaires will pay” a higher tax rate than those in the middle of the income range in fiscal year 2015, according to an analysis by Roberton Williams, of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, who spent 22 years at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Obama and the ‘Buffett Rule,’ April 13, 2012


During the 2012 campaign, the Obama campaign more than once falsely claimed that Republican nominee Mitt Romney “backed a law that outlaws all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.” But that wasn’t Romney’s position, and there was no such law.

The Obama campaign made this false claim in two TV ads that we wrote about in July 2012. The claim was based on a question about a hypothetical “federal ban on all abortions” posed by an audience member at a GOP primary debate in 2007. In his answer, Romney did not say what, if any, exceptions he supported — so the Obama campaign filled in the blanks.

But Romney had been specific, both before and after that debate. He opposed abortion but supported exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

Twisting Romney’s Abortion Stance, July 9, 2012

Falsifying Romney’s Abortion Stance, Again, July 31, 2012


In a speech on education, Obama claimed that the high school dropout rate had “tripled in the past 30 years.” That wasn’t even close. At the time, the dropout rate had actually declined by a third.

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, the “status dropout rate” – defined as the percentage of people between ages 16 and 24 who are not in school and do not have high school diplomas or GEDs – was 9.3 percent in 2006. In 1976, 30 years before that, it was 14.1 percent. That’s actually a 34 percent decrease in the high school dropout rate.

How could the president have been so wrong? The White House referred us to a report by the College Board, which in turn cited a 2004 study by the National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy. The NBETPP reported a threefold increase in the percentage of students failing ninth grade — not dropping out — from 1969-70 to 2000-01.

Education Spin, March 18, 2009

Oil Imports

In his first speech to a joint session of Congress, Obama said “we import more oil today than ever before.” That wasn’t true. Imports peaked in 2005 and were substantially lower at the time that the president made his remarks.

Imports reached a high of 15,217,000 barrels per day the week of Nov. 4, 2005. They totaled 11,577,000 the week of Feb. 20, 2009 — five days before Obama’s speech.

FactChecking Obama’s Speech, Feb. 25, 2009


Obama’s two terms were marked by some of the worst mass shootings in the country’s history, and the president frequently found himself as consoler-in-chief. One such occasion was last year in Dallas during a memorial service for the five law enforcement officers who were shot and killed by a 25-year-old black man who told police he was targeting white officers.

Obama lamented a society in general that he said made it “easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.”

We did not find much research on the issue of gun availability, access and use among young urban males, and the White House couldn’t provide anything more than anecdotal evidence. The limited research available does show that teens report relatively easy access to illegally obtained guns in some urban areas. However, the percentage of teenagers who own a computer is far higher than those who have a gun, and a teenager can “get his hands” on a book as easily as a walk to the local library.

Obama on Access to Guns, July 15, 2016