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Joshua Gillin
By Joshua Gillin August 16, 2012

Did Obama say of the national debt, “If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition”?

A new commercial from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity accuses Obama of breaking his promises on the national debt.

The ad notes, "In 2009, Barack Obama said," then cuts to Obama: "I’m pledging to cut the deficit by half by the end of my first term in office." The words "Feb. 2009, Debt: $10 trillion" flash onscreen.

A giant meter titled "the national debt clock" then appears on screen, reading $10.6 trillion. As talking heads recount the upward spiral of the nation’s debt, the clock frantically spins above $15 trillion.

Obama is then heard saying, "I will be held accountable" before appearing in a video and continuing, "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

The debt clock returns, reading in excess of $15.9 trillion with the tagline, "Let’s make this a one-term proposition on November 6th." In a voice-over, the president is heard repeating, "I will be held accountable."

Well, time’s up, Mr. President. Did Obama say he would be held accountable for not halving the deficit in three years? When we went to the tape, we found Americans for Prosperity was pulling together two different interviews, and on two different topics.

The deficit debate

First off, it should be no secret Obama did, in fact, promise to cut the deficit in half during his first term. We’ve confirmed that before, rating that very claim by Republican Party of Florida chairman Lenny Curry quite True.

That ruling pointed out the federal budget deficit -- the difference between what the government spends versus what it takes in -- was $1.4 trillion when Obama took office. It decreased each year, projected to reach $901 billion in the fiscal year 2013 budget, but that’s still over the promised amount, which would have been in the neighborhood of $700 billion.

With the presence of the debt clock, Americans For Prosperity is confusing the deficit with the national debt, which is the aggregated total of the nation’s public debt, not its annual budget deficits. AFP didn’t return our request for clarification, so we can only guess if they know the difference. Most Americans don’t seem to know the specifics, either.

The promise Obama made was from a White House meeting called the "Fiscal Responsibility Summit" on Feb. 23, 2009.

"Today I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office," Obama said. "Now, this will not be easy. It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we've long neglected. But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay, and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control."

Note the phrase "we inherited" was removed from the ad’s version. That alone doesn’t make AFP’s usage of the sentence for the purposes of this attack ad untrue; Despite the president’s reasoning that high unemployment, wartime costs and the Great Recession prevented deeper cuts, budget numbers are still budget numbers.

Staying on message

The selective editing gets worse in the second half of the ad.

Obama’s admission that the voters will likely break out the torches and pitchforks if he doesn’t follow through in three years is from a 2009 interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today show.

It’s from Feb. 2, however, almost three weeks before his pledge to cut the deficit.

And the president is speaking about the Troubled Asset Relief Program, not halving the deficit.

During the interview, Lauer asked Obama if the bank bailouts he inherited would be curtailed if spending appeared to be ineffective. (President George W. Bush signed TARP into law October 2008, before Obama was elected.)

"Look, I'm at the start of my administration," Obama said. "One nice thing about the situation I find myself in is that I will be held accountable. You know, I've got four years, and --"

"You're going to know quickly how people feel about what's happening," Lauer interjected.

"That's exactly right. And, you know, a year from now, I think people are going to see that we're starting to make some progress, but there's still going to be some pain out there. If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

For the record, TARP officially expired in October 2010. The net cost of the program to U.S. taxpayers was reported earlier this year to be in the neighborhood of $34 billion, although questions remain as to exactly how some banks repaid the bulk of some $428 billion in disbursements and whether many banks in the program were going to survive. But no more money is being lent from the TARP fund.

We should note there’s been a troubling trend this election season of campaigns splicing together unrelated or out-of-context video of a candidate’s statements.

Mitt Romney’s campaign used Obama’s "you didn’t build that" quote out of context, but Democrats have also deceptively quoted Romney’s stance on his Massachusetts ban on assault weapons and dealing with foreclosures.

Editing video to make a person say what you want is not a new tactic, nor is it that hard to do -- here’s a video of Obama singing Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe.

The ruling

Clearly this commercial is edited to remove references to the Bush administration and muddy the context of the president’s comments. Obama irrefutably made the promise in 2009 to slash the deficit in half by the time his first term expired, and that doesn’t look at all possible.

But Americans For Prosperity overreaches, splicing together footage from two unrelated interviews to distort the message it wants to convey. Obama wasn’t talking about the deficit or the debt when he said, "If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition."

In this instance, the piling on is unnecessary to make the group’s point, and it’s intentionally misleading. The ad takes Obama’s comments from an interview about bank bailouts and TARP and makes it look as if he’s talking about the national debt. The use of the debt clock also purposely detracts from the president’s initial statement about the federal deficit.

We rate this claim False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

YouTube, "President Obama: A One Term Proposition," posted Aug. 8, 2012

White House, "Fiscal Responsibility Summit remarks," Feb. 23, 2009

C-SPAN Video Library, "White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit," minute 24:36, Feb. 23, 2009

YouTube via the Today show, "Feb 2, Matt Lauer interview with President Barack Obama," minute 4:20, Feb. 2, 2009

Nexis Federal News Service transcript, "NBC ‘Today’ interview with President Barack Obama; Interviewer: Matt Lauer," Feb. 2, 2009

Congressional Budget Office, "Report on the Troubled Asset Relief Program," March 29, 2011

White House, "Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2013," accessed Aug. 9, 2012

Pew Research Center, "Public Knows Basic Facts about Politics, Economics, But Struggles with Specifics," Nov. 18, 2010

Wall Street Journal, "A Bailout Some Won’t Exit," Sept. 30, 2010

National Review, "The Real Cost of TARP," March 14, 2012

Government Accountability Office, "Report to Congressional Committees: Capital Purchase Program: Revenues Have Exceeded Investments, but Concerns about Outstanding Investments Remain," March 2012

YouTube, "Barack Obama Singing Call Me Maybe by Carly Rae Jepsen," June 4, 2012

PolitiFact, "An ad claims Mitt Romney's housing policy is to let foreclosures ‘hit the bottom’," Nov. 1, 2011

PolitiFact, "DNC ad accuses Mitt Romney of flip-flopping on assault-weapons ban," Nov. 29, 2011

PolitiFact Florida, "Obama promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term but didn't," March 8, 2012

PolitiFact, "Putting Mitt Romney's attacks on 'You didn't build that' to the Truth-O-Meter," July 26, 2012

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Did Obama say of the national debt, “If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition”?

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