published Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Fact-checking President Obama's Chattanooga speech

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    President Barack Obama speaks to Amazon employees and guests while at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee, on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. President Obama visited the center as part of his cross-country trip aimed at jump-starting his economic agenda. This was his first trip to the Scenic City since he took office as president.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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  • President Barack Obama proposes "Grand Bargain" in Chattanooga speech

The speech President Barack Obama gave eight days ago in Chattanooga was jam-packed with facts and figures.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know, in real time, how truthful the president’s — and other politicians’ — speeches are?

Turns out, there’s an app for that — though it’s still under development. The Washington Post is working on Truth Teller, a prototype smart phone application that someday will allow users to hold up a phone to record a politician and find out immediately how truthful the speech is, Cory Haik, The Washington Post’s executive producer for digital news, wrote in blog post.

In the meantime, national nonpartisan fact-checking organizations have analyzed statements Obama made at the Amazon Fulfillment Center at Chattanooga’s Enterprise South industrial park.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning website, PolitiFact.com, described as “Mostly True” two statements Obama made in Chattanooga:

“This year, we’re off to our best private-sector jobs growth since 1999.”

Politifact’s website states, “The official statistics show that more jobs were created in the first six months of 2013 than in any equivalent period going back to 1999, but it’s worth noting that three other years came very close to the amount gained in 2013 — so close that they were within the [Bureau of Labor Statistics] survey’s margin of error.

On balance, we rate the claim Mostly True.”

“We need to raise our minimum wage, because right now it’s in lower terms than it was when Ronald Reagan took office.”

Obama “offered a carefully worded statement that is accurate when considering inflation. However, his invocation of Reagan rings hollow, since the late president was hardly a model for Obama’s approach to the minimum wage. Reagan was the only president not to preside over an increase in the minimum wage, and by the end of his term, the wage was 13 percent lower than it is now,” Politifact found.

The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information, so we rate it Mostly True.”

Factcheck.org, examined Obama’s Chattanooga speech at the request of the Times Free Press and found statements reaching both ends of the truthfulness spectrum from flat-out “true” to examples of “cherry-picked” data — and lots of nuance in between.

“Today, our businesses have created 7.2 million new jobs over the last 40 months. This year, we’re off to our best private-sector jobs growth since 1999.”

“The 40-month timeline is cherry-picked from the depths of the recession,” wrote Robert Farley, deputy managing editor, in an email.

“We now sell more products made in America to the rest of the world than ever before.”

“Yes,” Farley wrote. “The president’s claim that America sells more products overseas than ever before is correct. Last year, the U.S. exported $1.5 trillion worth of goods — the highest total, even after adjusting for inflation, since 1960, when the Census Bureau began collecting such data.”

“But … the president also has a long way to go to meet a goal he set in his 2010 State of the Union address, when he promised to double the export of U.S. goods and services,” Farley noted. “So far, exports have increased only 31 percent since Obama took office, according to data from the U.S. Commerce Department.”

“We produce more renewable energy than ever.”

“The amount of electricity generated from wind and solar sources has nearly tripled under Obama. During the most recent 12 months on record (ending in April), the combined total of wind- and solar-generated power was 176 percent higher than it was during 2008. (For the record, the amount increased even more during Bush’s last term — rising by 282 percent, though from a smaller base.) Wind and solar still supply only a small portion of all U.S. electricity generation, but the share is up to 3.8 percent in the most recent 12 months, compared with 1.4 percent in the year before Obama took office,” Farley wrote.

“Our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years.”

“In recent speeches, President Obama has repeatedly claimed that ‘our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years.’ The White House says he’s referring to the decline in the deficit as a percentage of the nation’s economy from 2009 to 2012. But that’s not the “fastest rate” of deficit reduction in 60 years. It fell at a faster rate from 2004 to 2007. To be sure, there has been a marked drop in the deficit. But it’s not the ‘fastest rate’ of deficit reduction — which speaks to relative speed. That may sound like a mathematical technicality, but it reveals a large contextual difference,” Farley said.

“Independent economists say immigration reform would boost our economy by more than a trillion dollars.”

“This appears to be true,” Farley said, according to a Congressional Budget Office study.

“Over the past four years, for the first time since the 1990s, the number of manufacturing jobs in America hasn’t gone down, it’s actually gone up. So the trend lines are good; now we’ve got to build on that progress.”

“He’s cherry-picking data. This is correct if you compare the last four years beginning in June 2009 to June 2013. That’s an increase of 243,000 manufacturing jobs. However, since he took office, the number of manufacturing jobs has declined from January 2009 to June 2013 — a loss of 592,000 jobs. If you consider the last four years being January 2009 to January 2013, then there was a loss of 591,000 jobs,” Farley wrote.

Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, calls the fact-checking movement, in which reporters rigorously analyze and evaluate the assertions and advertisements of politicians, “one of the more encouraging developments in journalism in recent years.”

“One of the depressing aspects of last year’s election was that some candidates continued to promulgate bad information, even after it had been widely discredited,” Rieder wrote in a column in USA Today. “They figured that if they repeated the nonsense loudly and frequently enough, they would drown out the fact-checkers. But that’s no reason to be discouraged. All the fact-checkers can do is lay out the truth. The rest is up to the voters.”

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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