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Sorting out the truth in politics

Obama fares well vs. Truth-O-Meter, mostly

The loudest shout of the year came from Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican, who hollered "You lie!" at President Barack Obama during an address before a Sept. 9 joint session of Congress. Wilson's presidential heckle crystallized a year in which lies — and charges of lying — came fast and furious.

As Obama ends his first year in office, we're examining how the freshman president has fared on our Truth-O-Meter.

Obama faced the Truth-O-Meter 56 times and nearly half the time, we found the statements were True or Mostly True.

Indeed, the Obama administration often tried to portray itself as the truth-tellers, and alleged that Republicans were the ones exaggerating or lying. As the health care debate intensified through the summer, Obama often complained about what he called "outrageous myths," "willful misrepresentations" and "outright distortions." He singled out Sarah Palin's claim that the legislation proposed by Democrats included "death panels" that would sit in judgment over who would be deemed worthy of treatment (a claim that earned our "Lie of the Year").

Obama's statement before Congress, "If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out," became a rallying cry for many Democratic proponents and inspired a feature on the White House Web site called "Reality Check," a blog dedicated to correcting the worst distortions about the health care plan.

But in that debate, we found Obama made plenty of distortions and misrepresentations himself.

When Obama turned his ire on the health insurance industry, we called him out for claiming insurance companies were making record profits. And we found he was wrong that an Illinois man lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy and that he died because of it. We rated both statements False.

Obama has also been wrong — repeatedly — when he has tried to bolster his argument for reform by claiming that preventive care saves money. It doesn't. He also was wrong to claim that he has never said he was a supporter of a single-payer system. He has. Those also got False ratings. And he was exaggerating when he claimed he didn't campaign on a public option. We found that while it wasn't a prominent theme of his dialogue on health care, it was in his campaign literature, and we rated his claim Barely True.

We found that Obama was seriously stretching the truth when he claimed the Senate Finance Committee's version of health care reform had Democratic and Republican support (it had one Republican vote); and when he said the health care plan incorporated ideas from Democrats and Republicans alike. Both claims earned Barely True ratings.

Earlier in the year, it was the debate over the Obama-backed economic stimulus plan that often left the truth as a casualty. While Republican opponents distorted the facts about all kinds of projects in the stimulus to score political points, we found Obama often presented a rosier picture of the stimulus' potential effects than he could back up. Obama's chief exaggeration about the stimulus was tied to claims about the number of jobs it has saved or created, such as his dubious claim that in 100 days after the stimulus was passed, it "saved or created" nearly 150,000 jobs. That was an estimate created by economists, not a count of actual jobs, and we gave it a Barely True.

For the record, Obama earned his first Pants on Fire! as president when he claimed in an interview that the United States has so many Muslim residents that it would qualify as one of the largest populations in the world. The comment, made in the days leading up to a speech in Cairo, was meant to emphasize the religious diversity of the United States and the importance of understanding between the Western world and followers of Islam, but we found that of the 60 most-populous Muslim states, the United States ranks 58th.

As for the issue at the heart of Rep. Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, we found when Obama said the health care reform effort would not insure illegal immigrants, he was telling the truth.

Obama on the Truth-O-Meter*

Mostly True10
Half True12
Barely True7
Pants on Fire!1

*Since his inauguration

Obama fares well vs. Truth-O-Meter, mostly 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 11:28pm]
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