The State of the Union 'bump' -- in accuracy

President Obama delivered the State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
President Obama delivered the State of the Union address on Tuesday night.

This year’s State of the Union address attracted attention for efforts by lawmakers to sit next to members of the opposite party, rather than camping out in rival Republican and Democratic sections. The idea stemmed from a desire to cool partisan passions in the wake of the Tucson shooting that seriously injured Rep.Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., and killed six others.

Commentators agreed that the mixed seating helped keep the event more subdued than in years past. But we noticed something else, too. Whether it’s a result of the impulse toward civility or other factors, the three speakers on Tuesday -- President Barack Obama, the official GOP respondent, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. -- took extra care with the accuracy of their statements.

We gave Obama two True ratings, two Mostly Trues and one Half True. Ryan earned one True, one Half True and one Barely True. And Bachmann -- who had previously failed to score a rating higher than False in the dozen-plus times we’ve rated her statements -- ended up with two Half Trues and two Barely Trues.

More strikingly, the three speakers took care to preface and couch their remarks in such a way that they avoided the pitfalls of earlier statements we had graded critically.

We’re not saying we had anything to do with this -- in fact, it could be a consequence of the statistics being recited in prepared speeches rather than off-the-cuff in interviews -- but we like to think the improvements are more than just coincidence. Here are some examples:

• Obama: As many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school."

On Aug 29, 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the following on ABC's This Week with Christiane Amanpour:  "In this country, we have a 25 percent dropout rate."

We took issue with the underlying statistics and ended up rating Duncan’s comment Half True. But Obama prefaced the statistic by saying that "as many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school," acknowledging that there is some uncertainty in the figure. We rated the president a notch better: Mostly True.

• Obama: The U.S. has "one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world."

We had checked this fact before, when it was offered by newly elected Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., on the Jan. 2, 2011, edition of NBC's Meet the Press. Toomey said that the United States has "the highest in the world right now."

Using the most straightforward definition of "corporate tax rates," we concluded that Toomey was right. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 32 large, industrialized democracies, ranks the "combined corporate income tax rate" in its member nations. But we also cited other statistics that factored in deductions and other exclusions that corporations can use to lower their tax bill. Comparing the statistics for effective tax rates, the U.S. still ranked high, but it was not first in the world. We rated Toomey Mostly True.

Obama, by contrast was more careful, saying that the U.S. has "one of" the highest corporate tax rates in the world. So we once again bumped him up a notch, rating the president’s version True.

• Bachmann: The government "may put 16,500 IRS agents in charge of policing President Obama's health care bill."

We rated a similar statement when then-Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., (now a senator) said in a March 21, 2010, House floor speech, "About the only jobs created by the (health care) legislation would be at the IRS. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the IRS would need to hire over 16,000 people -- over 700 just in Illinois-- to audit the American people and impose the new taxes and mandates of the bill."

We concluded that Kirk had used calculations put together by the Republican staff of the House Ways and Means Committee -- a panel with a vested interest in opposing the health care bill -- and cherry-picked the highest numbers on the committee’s scale of possibilities.

But Bachmann, rather than simply citing the 16,500 figure, added some cushion by saying that the bill "may put 16,500 IRS agents" to work. That was enough for us to raise the rating from Barely True -- what we gave Kirk -- to Half True.

• Bachmann: "While the government grew, we lost more than 2 million jobs."

We had earlier looked at a similar -- but different -- statement by outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty in a Dec. 13, 2010, op-ed column in the Wall Street Journal. He wrote that "since January 2008, the private sector has lost nearly 8 million jobs while local, state and federal governments added 590,000."

We concluded that Pawlenty mangled the time frame, contradicted his own definition of federal workers and failed to acknowledge a huge caveat -- that the numbers were cherry-picked to include peak hiring of Census workers, something that happens once every 10 years.

While Bachmann's wording was vague and open to interpretation, she was right using one measurement of government employment and would have been correct in total employment if the time frame had been extended back just three months earlier.

So instead of the Pants on Fire we gave Pawlenty, we gave Bachmann a rating of Half True.

• Ryan: "Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies, an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus."

In January 2010, when Obama attended a House Republican caucus meeting, Ryan told the president in a televised exchange: "The spending bills that you have signed into law, the domestic discretionary spending has been increased by 84 percent."

Ryan, who chairs the House Budget Committee, earned a Barely True for repeating to reporters his assertion from Baltimore. PolitiFact Wisconsin concluded that Ryan was on the right track in pointing to the federal stimulus package as a huge driver in spending increases under Obama, but that he had used fuzzy math to make the year-to-year increase appear much larger than it was.

Later, in his response to the State of the Union, Ryan accurately rounded up a 24 percent increase from 2008 to 2010 by saying it was "nearly 25 percent." He also added a reference to the stimulus package, to give a fuller picture of what was behind the numbers. But he continued to use the 84 percent number, which is inaccurate because it is created only when the stimulus is assigned to the wrong year.

So PolitiFact Wisconsin rated the statement one Half True -- one notch higher than its predecessor.