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The annual State of the Union speech by the president can always be trusted to include a few numbers that can be called into question. This years speech was no different. The next morning the Washington Post fact checker was out with his take on the numbers. The interesting thing was the title of the piece “Even when you’re the commander in chief, context is everything.” Unfortunately the fact checker, Glenn Kessler in this case, forgot to pay attention to the context in his criticisms. (Just for clarity the title of the piece was for the print edition of the paper. For some reason the Post decided to use a different title for the online edition.) The White House has posted the entire text of the speech.
The first itme was the statement early in the speech:
After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over six million new jobs
I’m not sure why someone wants to challenge the numbers here. They are factually correct. Kessler’s complaint was that the president was guilty of “cherry-picking” the numbers. Kessler’s numbers are also correct. The numbers that the president is using date from the bottom of the recession. Kessler seems to feel that it is better to use the numbers at the beginning of the presidents first term. Back in April of last year I posted the plot to the right showing the number of jobs since January 2009. Clearly context is important here. The president said “after the grueling recession,” so his view is an accurate one. Kessler’s view it take the number starting a year earlier. But using Kessler’s date places the blame for the the job losses in the first year of Obama’s term on Obama. It is very difficult for any new president to influence the jobs situation in the first several months they are in office. If one looks at the jobs numbers for 2008 Obama clearly inherited an economy in free fall. This is the context that needs to be included in the discussion.
An intersting thing happens when Kessler turns his attention next item. Obama said:
We buy more American cars than we have in five years, and less foreign oil than we have in 20.
Here I think I agree with Kessler’s facts. The reasons for the decline in the use of foreign oil likely have little to do with Obama’s accomplishments. Those declines are likely due to events that preceded him and to the effects of the recession. But my issue is again one of context and consitancy. Kessler does not want to let the president escape the blame on the jobs front due to factors that proceeded his term in office, yet he also will not let him claim credit for the decline in the use of foreign oil that is due to factors the preceded him. This is a question of consistency of treatment. If you will not let him off the hook the the jobs front, then consistency demands that you let him take credit on oil front. I would prefer to let him go on his jobs statement and not let him take credit for his claim on oil usage.
After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three. Caterpillar is bringing jobs back from Japan. Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico. And this year, Apple will start making Macs in America again.
Kessler again accuses Obama of “cherry-picking” the numbers. Here he talks about the numbers of manufacturing jobs relative to the numbers when Obama took office. But Obama is clearly talking about the long term. He is focusing on the decline in manufacturing jobs that has taken place over the past ten years. The decline started long before the start of the last recession. The plot on the right clearly shows that Obama has an accurate description of the jobs situation. One can argue about him taking credit for the turnaround. But clearly a turnaround has occurred since the depths of the recession. Obama was taking credit for changing a long term trend, not for just what has happened in the recent recession. The criticism fails because Kessler has changed the context that was clearly intended in the speech.
On this one I think the fact checker need to do a better job. He needs to stay within the context of the economic situation over the long term, not get caught up in artificial dates, like the exact date the president was sworn into office. He also needs to better focus on consistency in his analysis.