There’s never been much love lost between President Barack Obama and Fox News. In the latest turn, the network bristled when Obama singled it out for criticism during a discussion of poverty.
Here’s how things developed at an event this week at Georgetown University. Obama said the country’s politics have created boogeymen out of the rich and the poor.
"Over the last 40 years, sadly, I think there’s been an effort to either make folks mad at folks at the top, or to be mad at folks at the bottom, Obama said. "And I think the effort to suggest that the poor are sponges, leeches, don’t want to work, are lazy, are undeserving, got traction."
To illustrate his point, the president brought up Fox News.
"If you watch Fox News on a regular basis, it is a constant menu," Obama said. "They will find folks who make me mad. I don’t know where they find them. They’re like, ‘I don’t want to work. I just want a free Obama phone’ or whatever. And that becomes an entire narrative, right? That gets worked up. And very rarely do you hear an interview of a waitress, which is much more typical, who’s raising a couple of kids and is doing everything right but still can’t pay the bills."
As you might expect, that didn’t sit well with Fox News. The next day on America’s Newsroom, host Martha MacCallum asked Fox Business News host Stuart Varney what he made of the president’s jab.
Varney said the president was spinning to cover his own failures.
"As the middle class shrinks and the poor are trapped in this system so to speak, the president blames us, the honest messengers," Varney said.
Varney then talked about two programs -- food stamps and the so-called Obama-phones, which is cell phone service provided to the poor.
"We’re not saying the recipients of food stamps are bad people or lazy. Our story is why is it, after six years of recovery, 12 million more people are still on food stamps," Varney said. (The Daily Show did a nice job calling into question Varney’s rebuttal.)
"On Obama phone, why are we giving away 13 million Obama phones?" Varney asked.
There is more nuance to both claims, as PolitiFact and PunditFact have found.
‘Why is it after six years of recovery, 12 million more people are still on food stamps?’
There are many answers to that question. (Varney more or less has his numbers right.)
We looked into the rise in food stamp use in a 2013 fact-check. The program has gone by the acronym SNAP since 2008, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
In 2013, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said food stamp spending "doubled under President (George W.) Bush, doubled again under President Obama." That rated True.
The recent rise in food stamp spending started with the 2002 farm bill. An adviser to the George W. Bush administration said the goal of that year’s farm bill was to expand food programs for low-income working families. The bill made it easier for states to administer the programs and to get more eligible people signed up.
The increase in spending continued under the Obama administration. Much of the recent growth stemmed from the economy, either through rising unemployment or more generous guidelines. According to the Congressional Budget Office, about 65 percent of the growth in spending from 2007 to 2011 was driven by an increase in the number of people eligible for food stamps in the poor economy. About 20 percent of growth came from the temporarily higher benefits under the federal stimulus bill.
The story about ‘Obama phones’
PolitiFact actually looked into this claim when it popped up in a chain email in 2009. Varney said the government had handed out 13 million phones.
"They give you a phone so you can get a job," Varney said. "That's a pretty poor rationale."
The Federal Communications Commission oversees two programs. Lifeline provides discounts on basic monthly phone service. Link-Up America helps those who qualify get telephone service by paying one-half of the startup fee.
If you make 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines or less, you qualify. Participating in Medicaid, SNAP, or a number of other low-income programs also gets you in. There’s a limit of one phone line per household.
Varney simplified the reasons behind the program. According to the FCC website, the purpose is to help people "find jobs, access health care services, connect with family and their children's schools, and call for help in an emergency."
Most importantly, Obama phones started well before Obama. Lifeline dates back to 1985 and Link-Up America emerged from the 1996 Telecommunications Act. So, if anything, it’d be better to call them Reagan phones or Clinton phones.
The Obama phone monicker has stuck, but it actually doesn’t apply.
Talking past each other
One final note. At the Georgetown event, Obama said, "I think we can all stipulate that the best antipoverty program is a job." This didn’t get much attention on Fox News. Instead, Varney speculated that food and phone assistance was actually a political ploy to win elections.
"Look at all the goodies we have available," Varney said. "Vote for me and the goodies keep on flowing."
The Obama-Fox News relationship has a long ways to go (or at least until January 2017).
C-SPAN, Obama remarks on Fox News coverage of the poor, May 12, 2015
Fox News, America’s Newsroom, May 13, 2015
White House, Remarks by the President in Conversation on Poverty at Georgetown University, May 12, 2015
PunditFact, Fox's Kilmeade: Colo. food stamp recipients can turn their benefits into cash at ATMs, Jan. 24, 2014
PunditFact, Brad Blakeman says 90% of farm bill goes to food stamps, Nov. 6, 2013
PolitiFact, Bill O'Reilly says poverty hasn't budged since 1965 despite 'trillions' spent, July 29, 2011
PolitiFact, Rep. Tom Cole says food stamp spending doubled under Bush, doubled again under Obama, July 19, 2013
PolitiFact, Chain e-mail claims Obama is handing out free cell phones to the needy, Oct. 28, 2009
MediaMatters, Fox Host Pushes Dubious Theory That Food Stamps Are Designed To "Buy Votes" For Democrats, May 13, 2015