Fact-checking Obama's 2014 State of the Union
By Katie Sanders
Published on Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated on Thursday, January 30th, 2014, at 4:50 p.m.
With his largely ignored 2013 agenda in the rearview, President Barack Obama pledged in his fifth State of the Union address Tuesday to work with, and if need be around, Congress to craft a progressive agenda that aims to lift Americans from the lowest rungs of the country’s ever-widening economic ladder.
"Let’s make this a year of action," Obama told a joint session of Congress. "That’s what most Americans want -- for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations."
The president focused on the plight of American workers and ways to lift them out of poverty.
Obama noted that the nation’s top earners "have never done better" during the last four years, "but average wages have barely budged." That second claim rates True.
From 2008-12, the average wage for workers is up from 1 to 1.7 percent when adjusted for inflation. That’s a rising wage, but by a small amount. The current average national wage is about $45,000.
Obama also announced an executive order raising the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. The minimum wage has been a big issue for Democrats and Obama, who have argued that the current $7.25 federal minimum wage is too low.
"Today, the federal minimum wage is worth about 20 percent less than it was when Ronald Reagan first stood here," Obama said.
PolitiFact rated this claim Mostly True. Obama is not far off, but the difference is actually closer to 16 percent. The minimum wage in Reagan’s first year in office, 1981, was $3.35. That translates to about $8.59 in 2013 dollars.
The Republican response provided more fact-checking fodder in this area. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said the GOP wants to close the gap "between where you are and where you want to be." She blamed Obama's policies for that gap and said, "Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one."
We rated her claim Half True. McMorris Rodgers chose December to illustrate her point, when the number of discouraged workers increased by 155,000 and the economy added 74,000 jobs. However, December was one of only two months in 2013 during which the number of discouraged workers grew by more than the number of new jobs added. The other was June. She ignores the overall trend for the year, which was positive.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered his own response to Obama's speech, choosing to chastize him for the 2009 economic stimulus: "Mr. President, where are the jobs? You spent nearly a trillion dollars on make-work government jobs and still joblessness confronts the next generation."
PolitiFact rated Paul's statement False. The stimulus so far has cost $816 billion, which is close to "nearly a trillion," especially if you factor in its estimated debt. The big issue here is Paul's charge that the money paid for "make-work government jobs," as only a fraction of the money went to pay government employees. Two-thirds of the spending went toward tax cuts and entitlement programs, and private contractors largely received the remaing one-third.
Obama’s focus on income inequality in the prime-time speech was expected, and PolitiFact has fact-checked the topic extensively.
But that was not the only topic broached by the president.
The United States has improved its standing in the eyes of the world's business leaders, he said.
"For the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s No. 1 one place to invest; America is," he said.
This Obama claim rated Mostly True. Obama based his comment off of the 2013 A.T. Kearney Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index, a survey of corporate executives from 302 companies across the world. The United States took the No. 1 spot for countries in which companies are looking to make global investments for the first time since 2001. Other studies, though, put the United States lower in this category.
Obama also boasted about successes, saying the United States produces more oil than it imports, and it’s "the first time that’s happened in nearly 20 years."
We rated the claim True, building off our prior research. The trend had been in the works for years and is largely due to the recession, increased fuel efficiency and ramped-up domestic oil production.
The growth isn't just in oil and gas but also solar, he said.
"Every four minutes, another American home or business goes solar; every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can’t be outsourced," Obama said.
Obama renewed calls for Congress to pick up immigration reform and enact policies that address climate change, where he said there has been some progress.
"Taken together, our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet," he said. "Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth."
PolitiFact rated that claim Half True. Obama is correct about the total amount of emission reductions, but he's off if you examine the scale of the cuts in proportion with other countries. Through that lens, the United States did not cut its emissions as much as Greece, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, France or Spain.
Obama went on to challenge those who doubt the science of climate change.
"Climate change is a fact," Obama said. "And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did."
Back in 2011, then-GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty argued the notion that humans are contributing to climate change was in dispute among scientists. We rated that claim False at the time.
Based on our research, we found very little dispute in the scientific community, especially among climate specialists, on whether climate change is primarily caused by natural or man-made forces. The overwhelming majority of scientists polled feel that human activity is the primary driver of climate change.
And more recently, conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh claimed the media created the "polar vortex," and the cold weather was proof that polar "ice isn’t melting." Experts told us both charges were wildly inaccurate, and we rated Limbaugh’s claim Pants on Fire.
In pressing for equal wages for working women, Obama referenced an oft-repeated statistic that "women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns." We rated Obama's statement Mostly True.
PolitiFact has fact-checked claims about this statistic in the past, often finding the speaker failed to include more nuance. The figure comes from a credible source, the U.S. Census Bureau, though experts have said the gap is not completely the result of discrimination. Other studies shows the gap is tighter, and differences in pay by gender also vary by occupation.
And, of course, Obama talked about health care and his signature health care law.
Obama implored congressional Republicans to present their ideas for health care reform "but to please stop taking forty-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans like Amanda" Shelley, a single mother and guest of the first lady who gained health coverage just in time for an emergency surgery.
House Republicans have indeed tried dozens of times to repeal all or parts of the health care law. (We’ve fact-checked many, many more claims about the health care law -- read them here.)
The conservative Heritage Foundation said recently that repealing the law would be easier than repealing Prohibition. That’s only Half True. Heritage is correct that, on paper, it’s procedurally easier to repeal a law than to repeal a constitutional amendment. However, Obamacare is a much more complicated piece of legislation than Prohibition was, meaning it would likely be far more complicated to eliminate all vestiges of the law.
Names in this article: Barack Obama
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