Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

The 500 fact-checks of President Barack Obama

We've been fact-checking Barack Obama since PolitiFact's launch in 2007. (AP Photo)
We've been fact-checking Barack Obama since PolitiFact's launch in 2007. (AP Photo)

It was 2007 when a young senator from Illinois arrived on the national scene and launched a campaign for president. By coincidence, that’s the same year PolitiFact launched. We’ve been fact-checking the man who became President Barack Obama ever since.

Today, we publish our 500th fact-check on Obama.

No. 500 is Obama’s statement in a recent radio address that United States generates "more natural gas than anybody" thanks in part to his administration’s "all-of-the-above" energy strategy.

The best available statistics show the United States leads Russia, but it’s less clear how much his administration deserves credit. We rated the statement Mostly True.

PolitiFact has fact-checked things Obama said in prepared remarks, comments he’s made in live interviews, TV commercials put out by his campaign, tweets, Facebook comments and State of the Union speeches.

With 500 fact-checks to his name, Obama is by far the person PolitiFact has fact-checked the most. Nobody else comes close; the first runner-up is former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who we’ve fact-checked 204 times. Second runner-up goes to U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also a former presidential candidate, with 171 fact-checks.

PolitiFact selects statements to fact-check based on relevance and newsworthiness. Of the 500 statements PolitiFact has checked on Obama, 22 percent have been rated True and another 24 percent Mostly True. On the inaccurate side, 12 percent of his statements have been rated Mostly False, 13 percent False and 2 percent Pants on Fire. In the middle, 27 percent of his statements have been rated Half True, which means they were partially accurate.

All those fact-checks have led us to a few observations about Obama.

One of the perks of the presidency is a team of researchers and writers who prepare public remarks for the president. We do find exaggerations from time to time (especially in support of his main points), but we rarely find careless errors of fact when Obama speaks from a script. The White House typically has evidence on hand to back up statistical claims and quantitative statements.

Obama also seems to show a natural caution in his public remarks. Even in live interviews when he speaks off the cuff, we’ve noticed he uses many qualifiers and pauses often to weigh his words.

All that being said, Obama has made some notable statements that were not accurate:

• In 2012, Obama defended his health care law by claiming that preventive care "saves money, for families, for businesses, for government, for everybody." We found that preventive measures often save lives and keep patients healthier. But only some preventive measures save money; many tests and screenings do not. So policy makers need to consider the costs of preventive care in their planning. We rated his statement False.

• In 2011, Obama gave an interview to conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, who asked Obama this question: "Do you deny that you are a man who wants to redistribute wealth?"

Obama responded, "I didn't raise taxes once. I lowered taxes over the last two years." Back then, Obama had gotten a tax cut for most workers passed through the economic stimulus legislation of 2009. But he had also raised specific taxes on cigarettes and indoor tanning to pay for his health care law. (Taxes on the health care industry and the investment income of the wealthy also pay for the health care law.) We rated Obama’s statement False.

• In an interview with Charlie Rose of CBS News, Obama addressed concerns about government surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a special court that hears government requests for warrants related to national security investigations. Obama told Rose that people shouldn’t be concerned because the FISA court was "transparent." Actually, the court is quite secretive, due to national security concerns, and to claim otherwise is plain wrong. We rated Obama’s statement Pants on Fire.

• Obama received PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year award for his statement that if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan. PolitiFact rated the statement Half True in previous years, when legislation was being drafted and after it became law. In 2013, the statements were proved to be inaccurate for small percentage of people (still constituting several million Americans) who had their plans canceled by insurance companies.

Two percent of Obama’s statements have been rated Pants on Fire. Most recently, Obama earned a Pants on Fire in November, when he claimed his health care promise about people being able to keep plans had always included caveats. "What we said was, you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed," he said. PolitiFact found more than three dozen instances, though, where he or his team didn’t include any fine print on the pledge. We rated Obama’s statement Pants on Fire.

On the more positive side of the Truth-O-Meter, Obama has made a number of accurate claims, with interesting comments about inequality, the debt ceiling, and his favorite baseball team, the Chicago White Sox.

• In a 2013 speech in Galesburg, Ill., Obama said, "The income of the top 1 percent nearly quadrupled from 1979 to 2007, but the typical family’s incomes barely budged." Numbers from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office supported that statement, so we rated his claim True.

• In 2011, Obama argued that Congress should be willing to raise the debt ceiling, which allows the government to pay the bills for things Congress has already approved. After all, other presidents raised the debt ceiling routinely: "Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed it, and every President has signed it. President (Ronald) Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times." We counted the increases under Reagan and Bush and found the numbers correct. We rated the statement True.

• In 2009, Meet the Press host David Gregory told Obama the White Sox weren’t doing so well and asked him to predict a World Series winner. Obama wouldn’t give up hope, though: "You know ... I think mathematically, the White Sox can still get in the playoffs." At the time, the White Sox were 5 1/2 games behind the first-place Detroit Tigers, and the White Sox couldn't be mathematically eliminated until there were 6 games left. When Obama spoke, there were 13 games left. We rated his statement True.