Checking The Facts In The State Of The Union

Renee Montagne talks with NPR reporters about what President Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address. The round-table discussion delves into various issues the president spoke about, and examines the validity of his facts and assumptions.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

President Obama took part in an American tradition last night: the State of the Union Address. For years now, no matter who's president, MORNING EDITION has had a tradition of its own: checking the president's facts.

MONTAGNE: It's just one of several reports we'll hear throughout the program. NPR correspondents joined us to analyze a speech in which President Obama promoted his ideas to grow the economy.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are poised for progress. Two years after the worst recession most of us have ever known, the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.

MONTAGNE: NPR's John Ydstie covers the economy.

And, John, is the worst behind us?

JOHN YDSTIE: Well, the worst probably is behind us, but job growth is still very disappointing. And that was very much on the president's mind last night.

MONTAGNE: What was the president proposing to do to create more jobs?

YDSTIE: Well, a lot of the focus was on things that he's talked about before, including government investment in clean energy industries, in repairing infrastructure, and in things like high-speed rail. Now, those things cost money, and, of course, we're running big budget deficits. But he says he'll pay for them, and we'll see how he does that when he releases his budget in a couple of weeks.

One thing he says he will do is end subsidies for oil companies and direct that money to energy sources of the future.

MONTAGNE: And the president did have some ambitious goals on renewable energy.

Pres. OBAMA: With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with bio-fuels and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: NPR's Elizabeth Shogren covers energy, and Elizabeth is here with us.

Tell us: How far is the U.S. from that goal now?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: Well, the new electric cars are just starting to come out. The Chevy Volt will have - says they'll bring out 45,000 in 2012. That's a long way from the million cars that the president's talking about.

He also talked about bringing out clean electricity, and he included a lot of different sources of energy in that, even natural gas and what he called clean coal. He wants to strive for a goal of 80 percent by 2035. And that's a very ambitious goal, especially because he's going to get a lot of pushback from Republicans in Congress.

MONTAGNE: Ambitious to the point where you would suggest it's not doable.

SHOGREN: Not with this Congress.

MONTAGNE: Thank you, Elizabeth.

To create jobs, the president also argued that there needs to be more focus on education. And he pointed to his big education initiative.

Pres. OBAMA: Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than one percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning.

MONTAGNE: Claudio Sanchez covers education.

How successful, Claudio, has Race to the Top been so far?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: It's a mixed record. Remember that the money for Race to the Top - about four and a half billion dollars - only went to 11 states and the District of Columbia. They were the winners of a competition that has turned out to be a big carrot at the end of a stick because to get this money, the winners had to agree to some pretty prescriptive ideas: closing down struggling schools, adopting new tests tied to rigorous standards.

The one area in which the president has found a great deal of Republican support is in his efforts to improve the quality of the nation's teachers, because of his willingness to take on the teachers' unions on issues like merit pay, tying teacher evaluation to students' performance - including test scores.

MONTAGNE: And the president also spoke of infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail and expanding to most of the population high-speed Internet.

John Ydstie, let's bring you back in. Investment was a big theme of this State of the Union speech. In the official Republican rebuttal, Congressman Paul Ryan had this to say about that.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): Since taking office, President Obama has signed into law spending increases of nearly 25 percent for domestic government agencies, an 84 percent increase when you include the failed stimulus. All of this new government spending was sold as investment. Yet after two years, the unemployment rate remains above nine percent, and government has added over $3 trillion to our debt.

MONTAGNE: A lot of numbers there. But, John Ydstie, Congressman Ryan's assessment, is it correct?

YDSTIE: Well, it's certainly an assessment many Republicans share. And there's no doubt that President Obama has presided over massive increases in spending, in order to stimulate the economy and keep it from slipping back into recession. Whether that's a failed stimulus or not is arguable, certainly.

The economy is growing now. And I think economists of both persuasions agree that the stimulus spending played a big role in keeping the economy from sliding back into recession.

MONTAGNE: And the president did speak about something many Americans are concerned about: The trillion-dollar budget deficits and what he is going to do about it.

Pres. OBAMA: So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: Now, this would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, and will bring discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Scott Horsley is with us in the studio, as well.

And how far will that freeze go in reducing the deficit?

SCOTT HORSLEY: Not very far. The president himself calls this merely a down payment on the kind of stats that would be needed to really address the red ink. We're talking, remember, not about the big entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare. We're talking not about anything that has to do with national security. So it's really just a sliver of the overall federal budget that would even be affected by this freeze. We should say, too, that the president proposed a three-year freeze last year, and Congress never even got around to passing a budget.

MONTAGNE: And President Obama also mentioned his bipartisan fiscal commission, something he created to tackle the national debt, to offer some suggestions. Has he endorsed any of their really quite tough and austere recommendations?

HORSLEY: Yeah. The commission's recommendations really get to the heart of where the budget deficits are coming from. And the president has not endorsed the overall blueprint that the commission came out with, which includes big spending cuts and also tax increases. But what he does say is he likes their sort of holistic approach, which is that everything has to be on the table.

MONTAGNE: Let's bring in Julie Rovner, who covers health care. Here's what the president had to say about its effect on the deficit.

Pres. OBAMA: The health insurance law we passed last year will slow these rising costs, which is part of the reason that nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the health care law would add a quarter of a trillion dollars to our deficit. Still, I'm willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.

(Soundbite of applause)

MONTAGNE: Julie, talk to us about what he's just said.

JULIE ROVNER: Well, first of all, on his claim that it's a quarter of a trillion dollars to repeal the health care law, that is pretty close to what the Congressional Budget Office said. They actually - the number is $230 billion over 10 years. On medical malpractice reform, it's interesting - what the fact sheet the White House put out said is that the president supports state laws. The - of course, the Republicans in Congress want to do federal caps on damages. But even if they were to come together, that's really a tiny, tiny percentage of health care spending. So that wouldn't do very much to bring down health care costs, even if they could come to some kind of an agreement.

MONTAGNE: Julie, thank you.

In this State of the Union speech, the president spent just a few minutes on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NPR's Tom Gjelten covers foreign policy. And Tom, what do you think accounts for so little space given to these engagements that are so costly in lives and treasure?

TOM GJELTEN: Well, Renee, I think it's because people mainly want to know when those wars will be over and when U.S. troops will be coming home, and there's not a lot of good news to report there. President Obama said the war in Iraq is coming to an end, but the political situation there is still unstable. In Afghanistan, the president said troops will begin to come home next summer, but he also said there's a lot of work still to do there, and I'm not sure Americans really want to be reminded of that.

MONTAGNE: Tom, thank you, and to all our NPR correspondents for joining us: Tom Gjelten, Julie Rovner, Scott Horsley, Elizabeth Shogren, Claudio Sanchez, John Ydstie, thank you very much.

INSKEEP: We've done this every year since 2005. President Bush was president then, President Obama now. Each year, the State of the Union speech is fact-checked as one part of our coverage throughout the morning of the speech.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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