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Fact-checking the Obama years

The United States has prospered during the presidency of Barack Obama.

Since President Barack Obama first took office the economy has added 9.7 million jobs.
REUTERS/Jim Young

You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Is that a fact? Not exactly.

First of all, the saying above is often attributed to former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, although the saying appeared in print in a small New Mexico newspaper in 1950, long before Moynihan came to prominence. That paper attributed it to the once-famous financier Bernard Baruch, who also gets credit on the website BrainyQuote, although without a source. Anyway, the spirit of the Moynihan/Baruch/whomever quote is likeable, but arguable.

Here’s a factual-sounding statement, and one in which I believe: The United States has prospered during the presidency of Barack Obama.

That’s not exactly a “fact” by the most demanding meaning of that word. It’s more of a conclusion based on facts, or maybe, one should say, on a selection of facts. And most of us do select our facts for some purpose, often hidden from ourselves. Face this fact: It’s possible, it’s not even difficult, to compile a set of numbers tending to prove that things have gotten better during the Obama years, and a set of numbers that suggest the opposite.

‘Obama’s Numbers’

My favorite journalistic fact-checking operation is FactCheck.org, which is pretty close to being the granddaddy of the now widespread fact-checking sub-genre of journalism. So the other day, I opened an email from FactCheck which linked to the latest quarterly update of a series called “Obama’s Numbers.”

Here’s the summary, direct from FactCheck:

Since President Barack Obama first took office:

  • The U.S. trade deficit has shrunk by 24 percent; exports have grown faster than imports.

  • The number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally has gone down — by 3.4 percent according to one independent estimate and by 9 percent according to another.

  • The economy has added 9.7 million jobs.

  • The unemployment rate has dropped below the historical norm.

  • The buying power of the average worker’s weekly paycheck is up 4.2 percent.

  • Corporate profits are running 144 percent higher and stock prices have soared.

  • Federal debt has more than doubled, and annual deficits, after shrinking, are again on the rise.

  • The number of people lacking health insurance has gone down by nearly 15 million.

Or click through to this full list of the April 2016 installment of the series, which is nothing but numbers tracking various statistical indices of mostly economic measures of how the United States has fared during the Obama years, with the sparest and least politicized of commentary.

Note that I say during the Obama years. FactCheck, to its credit, goes out of its way to say:

“We leave it to our readers to judge how much credit or blame the president deserves for what has happened on his watch, and we caution that no single number or collection of numbers can tell the entire story. What we offer here are some key yardsticks from sources we consider solid and reliable.”

President’s influence

Bless you FactCheck and one of its founders, Brooks Jackson, who is semi-retired now but is still running the Obama’s Numbers feature, which he started early in the administration. He is all-but-acknowledging that no such enterprise can or should claim to know the correlation between what happened during a presidency and the actions of the president (not to mention that a president cannot even adopt many of his preferred policies without a cooperative Congress, which Obama has lacked since the midterm of his first term). It’s fundamentally ridiculous to think that everyone who was hired or fired or got a raise or had a good day on the stock market on the day after Obama was inaugurated was hired or fired or etc. because Obama was in the Oval Office that day. And it’s less stupid or crazy but still stupid or crazy to assume the same about every event in the economy even now, in Obama’s seventh year in office.

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But some are more likely than others to be strongly affected by administration policy, Jackson said. For example, U.S. crude oil production is up 87 percent since Obama took office, which helped drive oil imports down 61 percent. But that is likely more attributable to improvements in fracking technology than it is to Obama policies. (Those energy numbers are not in the bullet items above, but you can see them if you click through to the actual FactCheck report.)

On the other hand, the last of the bulleted items above, the decrease in the number of Americans without health insurance, is surely heavily influenced by one of Obama’s signature policy initiatives, the Affordable Care Act. But, of course, critics of Obamacare believe that overall it has made the health-care situation in the country worse. They may be — oh, the heck with it, they mostly are — viewing the net effect of Obamacare through a prism of negative bias. But that argument will go on for a long time yet.

In a phone interview, I asked Jackson how FactCheck had chosen which indices to track. His answer surprised me. He said that early in the Obama administration, he had seen a Facebook posting passing a list of a lot of ways in which America had gone to the dogs since Obama took office. He simply started checking (what FactCheck does to factual assertions) to see if they were accurate, and many of them were way off. So he wrote a typical FactCheck piece pointing out some of the errors and out-of-contextness of some of the assertions. That post was such a hit with readers that FactCheck decided to do a quarterly update, sometimes adding or subtracting indices based on whether there were fresh numbers and whether a particular measurement had been in the news.

The quarterly updates have continued to be among the site’s big hits.

Rise in debt

I asked Saint John’s University economist Louis Johnston to look at the latest quarterly report and react to my impression that the numbers showed a generally strong economy during the Obama years. He agreed.

I asked him specifically how much of a complication to the overall good numbers it was that the U.S. government debt had more than doubled (it was actually up 121 percent from Obama’s inauguration day). I said that critics would surely say that you can buy a lot of prosperity with borrowed money but the tale cannot be fully told without taking into account the impact of the added debt on future generations.

True enough, Johnston said, but if you believe (and Johnston generally does) that the Great Recession that Obama inherited from his predecessor is still in danger of slipping into a second Great Depression like that one in the 1930s, and if you believe that some of Obama’s costly policies helped decrease the odds of that happening, then you have to consider the likely possibility that the addition to the debt was worth it.

Those considerations, of course, take us a little further from the realm of facts into conjecture about what would have or could have happened if, oh, I don’t know, if Mitt Romney had been elected instead of Barack Obama. The answer to that mystery even time won’t tell.