Fact-checking the 2015 State of the Union and GOP Response

President Barack Obama delivers his sixth State of the Union address Jan. 20, 2015 (Photo credit: New York Times)
President Barack Obama delivers his sixth State of the Union address Jan. 20, 2015 (Photo credit: New York Times)

Editor's note: This story is a summary of our fact-checks from President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union speech, the run-up to the speech and various responses. This story was last updated on Thursday, January 29th, 2015 at 9:40 a.m.

As part of our coverage, we also annotated both Obama's speech and the Republican response from Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa. View Obama’s speech annotated; view Ernst’s speech annotated.

We also fact-checked the speeches in real time as they were being delivered so readers could follow along live. View an archived version of our live-blog.

With the economy picking up steam, President Barack Obama told the nation in his State of the Union address that it’s time to "turn the page" from the gloomy days of the recession and pursue ambitious new policies that will help middle-class Americans.

"At this moment – with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, booming energy production – we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth," Obama said. "It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next 15 years, and for decades to come."

He challenged Congress -- where Republicans now control both houses -- to enact policies that spread the wealth. He called on Congress to pay for free tuition to community college and tax cuts to help families pay for child care.

"Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well? Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?"

Here at PolitiFact, we found much to fact-check from the speech and responses to it. 

Obama on the deficit

Obama made a point to mention the deficit's drop, casting it as part of an improving economic picture, saying the United States has seen "our deficits cut by two-thirds." His claim is accurate if you use 2009, his first year in office with an historically high deficit, as a starting point. But his comment ignores that the country’s spending is not expected to continue its downward route or factors that include increased interest payments on the debt and the lack of substantial policy changes for the country’s biggest programs, like Social Security and Medicare. We rated the claim Mostly True.

Obama on jobs and workers

Obama spent quite a bit of time celebrating America’s rebounding economy. "Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis," he said. He’s correct when using the basic unemployment rate -- the most commonly cited figure -- but it’s worth noting that other measures of the labor market are not quite so rosy. The unemployment rate may be dropping, if only in part, because people have stopped looking for work. We rated his statement Mostly True.

He also said that the economy is "creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999." The current jobs recovery isn’t perfect, but Obama is correct that it’s the fastest since 1999. So we rated the claim True.

Obama also said that since 2010, "America has put more people back to work than Europe, Japan, and all advanced economies combined." From publicly available data, we know that the country has created more jobs than the other economies combined. However, it’s not clear cut that this recovery involves putting "more people back to work." The labor force participation rate has consistently declined during this period, suggesting that unemployed Americans are dropping out of the workforce or retiring, rather than taking new jobs.  On balance, we rated Obama's claim Half True.

Obama said that the United States is "the only advanced country on Earth" that doesn’t guarantee "paid maternity leave to our workers." All developed countries surveyed by the International Labor Organization mandate at least some paid maternity leave. However, it’s worth noting that the benefit is not exactly universally enjoyed in parts of the developed world due to restrictions and exclusions on certain workers. We rated the statement Mostly True.

Obama on energy

Leading a series of energy claims, Obama noted, "America is No. 1 in oil and gas."  The latest global oil and natural gas production statistics back up Obama’s claim. The United States has been the world’s largest oil producer since 2012, and the largest natural gas producer for years. We rated his statement True.

Obama also said that "America is No. 1 in wind power." China is actually the leader in the overall capacity for generating wind power. But the United States has overtaken China in terms of the actual amount of electricity wind power it generates. We rated his statement Mostly True.

Obama on the Islamic State

On foreign policy, Obama said the United States was making progress against Islamic State. (Obama referred to them by the acronym ISIL.) 

"In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping ISIL's advance. Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group," he said. 

U.S. airstrikes have had a qualitative, if not quantifiable, impact on slowing the group’s swift spread compared with the situation last summer. However, Obama’s statement implies the United States is winning its war against the Islamic State, and that is not at all clear. Experts told us that while the terrorist group has stalled in Iraq, its movements in Syria are much more fluid. Also, other countries in the region, including those outside our alliances, have played a role in fighting the Islamic State. Obama's statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rated it Half True.

Ernst’s response

In the Republican response, Ernst offered a generally positive tone, speaking about her own personal background growing up in Iowa.

As for specifics, Ernst mentioned the Keystone XL pipeline: "President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it." We decided to dig into whether a strong majority supports the project.

She’s right that between 56 percent and 60 percent of the public has consistently supported the project when asked whether it should be built. However, one poll found public concern about building it before reviews are complete -- a stance more in tune with Obama than with Republican leaders. The statement was accurate but needed clarification or additional information, so we rated it Mostly True.

We also couldn’t resist looking a little more closely at Ernst’s comments about bread bags. "On rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry," Ernst said. "But I was never embarrassed, because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet."

We didn’t fact-check this, but we did talk to Iowans about their own memories of wearing bread bags to deal with inclement weather. "It says that you’re resourceful, you’re genuine with what’s been given to you," one of them told us. After we published that story, readers sent us more reactions, which we collected in an installment of "mailbag."

Pundits react

Fox News’ chief political anchor said Obama’s address was remarkable for what it left out. "The words ‘al-Qaida’ were never used," said host Bret Baier, adding that it was "the first time those words have not been used in a State of the Union address since February 2001." This is accurate; PunditFact rated it True.

And former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina zinged Obama as a hypocrite for his comments on equal pay, saying, "He's not paying women equally by his own measures in his own White House." The latest White House staffing data shows that there is a gap in average pay for men and women. But when the job titles are the same, largely so is the pay. In fact, for some job categories, women do a bit better than men. Fiorina’s dispute had to do with past rhetoric, not the issue as she framed it. PunditFact rated the claim Mostly False.

Before the speech: Obama on the auto companies

In the run up to his 2015 State of the Union speech, Obama visited several cities to introduce new initiatives and talk about the rebounding economy. In Detroit, he once again touted his administration’s intervention in the auto industry. "The auto companies have now repaid taxpayers every dime and more of what my administration invested in," he said on Jan. 7. Obama’s claim requires considerable cherry-picking. He doesn’t count any outstanding loans made by the Bush administration, which seem to have been made with Obama's quiet support and which were restructured (resulting in losses) under the bankruptcy Obama's Treasury Department helped manage. To get into the black, he counts money automakers paid back for Bush administration loans. We rated his statement Mostly False.

In Wayne, Mich., Obama talked about the growth in auto industry jobs: "Over the past five years, this industry created about 500,000 new jobs." During the period in question, the actual number of job gains in the car industry is strikingly close to what Obama said -- 502,900 -- and we don’t find any significant omissions in his claim. So we rated the statement True.

Before the speech: Obama on home sales, energy and manufacturing

Obama talked up the administration's moves to shore up the housing market in Phoenix, where he said, "So as a result of all these efforts, today, home sales are up nearly 50 percent from where they were in the worst of the crisis." The national numbers are largely accurate, although Obama’s statement doesn’t provide details about pockets of the market still experiencing trouble, nor does it address whether the recovery would have happened regardless of his policies -- although experts say those policies were a factor in the recovery. We rated the statement Mostly True.

In Knoxville, Tenn., Obama had this to say on energy: "We’ve doubled the production of clean energy." For many types of renewable energy, Obama's statement is on target. But it's not true for every type of renewable energy. Biomass and hydroelectric, for example, have remained relatively flat. We rated the statement Mostly True.

In Clinton, Tenn., Obama said that manufacturing jobs are growing and that  "today, factories are opening their doors at the fastest pace in almost two decades." The latest figures line up with Obama’s claim. In the first two quarters of 2014, things started to pick up, though they are still nowhere near the 1998 peak. We should note that economists are far from certain that this is a significant trend, or if it will continue. We rated Obama’s statement Mostly True.