Truth Squad Fact Checks Obama's State Of The Union

President Obama gave his first State of the Union address Wednesday night. Ever year, Morning Edition checks some of the facts to find out more about what the president said in his speech. Steve Inskeep talks to: NPR's David Welna on the budget, NPR's Julie Rovner on health care, NPR's Christopher Joyce on nuclear plants, NPR's Jackie Northam on the Afghan war; and NPR's Mary Louise Kelly on the Iraq war.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. Im Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And Im Ari Shapiro. President Obama gave his first State of the Union address last night. Were hearing parts of his speech throughout todays program. And this is the time that as we do every year we check some of the presidents facts.

INSKEEP: The president said he was, quote, just stating the facts, a premise we will test with a group of NPR correspondents. We start with this statement about a trillion dollars in spending that the president said the government has run up to fight the recession. The president says he wants to pay it back.

President BARACK OBAMA: So tonight, I'm proposing specific steps to pay for the trillion dollars that it took to rescue the economy last year. Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years.��

INSKEEP: That was the one clear step that the president tied to paying back that trillion dollars. NPR's David Welna covers Congress.

And, David, can you save a trillion dollars or anything close to it by freezing government spending in the way the president described?

DAVID WELNA: Well, Steve, youd have to do that for many, many, many years to get to a trillion dollars. If this policy were kept in place for 10 years, you might get to $250 billion, paying for may be a quarter of that. But hes not going to get anywhere close to making up the trillion dollars.

Now, right after he said that he said that he was going to keep in place tax cuts for the middle class that were passed during the Bush administration. And that is going to be very costly for the Treasury. Although he did say that he would not extend the tax cuts that are expiring for the wealthiest Americans.

INSKEEP: Thats NPRs David Welna.

Now, lets ask another trillion dollar question here. The president said his health care bill would save $1 trillion.

President OBAMA: And according to the Congressional Budget Office - the independent organization that both parties have cited as the official scorekeeper for Congress - our approach would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades.�

INSKEEP: NPR's Julie Rovner was listening in.

And, Julie, does the Congressional Budget Office say that the presidents health care bill will reduce the deficit by as much as a trillion dollars over two decades?

JULIE ROVNER: Well, now, the 12 of you who actually out there know how the CBO does its work will say, Wait a minute, CBO doesnt estimate things over two decades. They only estimate things over 10 years.

Actually, in looking at these health care bills the CBO has been asked to look out over a second ten years, although they have warned - and I am reading from the CBO document - the range of uncertainty surrounding these assessments -meaning that second 10 years - is quite wide.

On the other hand, the other thing the CBO said about those second 10 years -and were only talking about the Senate bill here, not the House bill - is that the way - the reason that there would be savings over that second 10 years is because of these provisions that would cut Medicare much more dramatically than it would be cut over the first year. There would be a commission.

And the CBO and others have suggested that Congress might not actually have the stomach for some of the cuts that might be called for by this commission. So theres some doubt as to whether those cuts would happen and whether that money would actually be saved.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand this. The - what the Congressional Budget Office actually says is that in the first 10 years after this bill is passed it might save a little money. In the second ten years it might save a bunch or it might not save very much at all.

ROVNER: Thats right. Or it might save a lot, but it might do it in ways that Congress and the public really night not like, so Congress might end up reversing.

INSKEEP: Thanks, Julie.

Now, while were talking about vast amounts of money, lets check what the president said about the bank bailout, which has caused massive anger across the country. He said the banks have paid back most of the money they were given to save them. NPR's John Ydstie covers economic policy. And, John, have the banks paid back most of the money?

JOHN YDSTIE: Yes, they have, Steve. And when its all said and done, its expected the government bailout of the banks is actually going to turn a profit. But remember, there were others besides the banks that got TARP funds -GM and Chrysler and AIG. And right now the losses overall for the TARP are estimated to be in the range of about $120 billion.

But remember, the president has proposed a fee for the biggest 50 banks to recoup any of the shortfall, so that the taxpayers are repaid every penny. So those banks could actually pay for losses caused by the car company.

INSKEEP: So that statement seems essentially true. Lets try another one. The president said his administration has given huge help to people struggling with their mortgages.

President OBAMA: The steps we took last year to shore up the housing market have allowed millions of Americans to take out new loans and save an average of $1,500 on mortgage payments.�����

INSKEEP: John, is that the whole story?

YDSTIE: Well, the government took a lot of steps to aid the housing market. Im not quite sure how the president got to $1,500 per mortgage. Theres no doubt that the Fed's low interest rate policy and other actions like the home buyer tax credit have certainly reduced mortgage costs. So I guess the numbers plausible.

But many would say other homeowners have been let down by the administrations main program to help delinquent homeowners avoid foreclosure. Millions of homeowners face foreclosure, but only 110,000 have yet received permanent modifications. So Id day a mixed record in helping homeowners.

INSKEEP: John Ydstie, one of our correspondents helping to check the presidents facts this morning.

Now President Obama, in his State of The Union speech, also made this statement about his plan for clean energy.

President BARACK OBAMA: We need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean, nuclear power plants in this country.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: NPRs Christopher Joyce was listening to that statement, and Christopher are there safe, clean nuclear power plants ready to be built?

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Well, the safe part is not so controversial, even though nobody has built a nuclear power plant in this country for lo these many years - three decades or so - people have been designing them. And even environmental groups - some of them - will tell you, yeah, designs are better now. But the real Achilles heel for nuclear power is the clean part, because whether its a new plant or old plant, nuclear power plants create nuclear waste highly radioactive nuclear waste - and there is still no place to put that waste.

It was for 20 years thought it would go to Yucca Mountain, this hole in Nevada. And $9 billion was spent, thousands of pages of research was produced, and one of the first things that the Obama administration did when it came in was say, uh uh, we dont like the science, we dont like the look of it. Were going to kill it. Theyve put the stake through it last year. So, now its back to square one. No place to put the waste.

INSKEEP: So, when you look at that statement safe, yes, clean, maybe not.

JOYCE: Maybe not.

INSKEEP: Christopher, thanks very much. Later in his State of The Union address, the president turned to two wars including this one.

Pres. OBAMA: In Afghanistan, were increasing our troops and training Afghan Security Forces so they can begin to take the lead in July of 2011 and our troops can begin to come home.

NPRs Jackie Northam has spent much time in Afghanistan, and Jackie, what did you hear in that statement?

JACKIE NORTHAM: Well, the president chose his words very, very carefully there. He said the Afghan Security Forces can begin to take the lead. And I dont think you would find many people who would expect a mass exodus of U.S. troops coming out in a year-and-a-half from now, in part because the numbers that they want to train are huge. Theyre looking - the tentative goal of 160,000 Afghan soldiers and about 125,000 Afghan Police. The most optimistic estimate to get these forces up and running is three to five years, and thats optimistic, most people think its going to be about 10 years.

INSKEEP: Jackie, I want to move on to the other war in Iraq, which the president described as nearing an end.

Pres. OBAMA: We will have all of our combat troops out of Iraq by the end of this August.

INSKEEP: NPRs Mary Louise Kelly covers the Pentagon. Mary Louise, he said all our combat troops...

MARY LOUISE KELLY: By which he means the U.S. still has more than 100,000 forces on the ground in Iraq. By the end of this summer, theyre going to bring that number down to fewer than 50,000. And the ones that are coming out are combat forces. The premise here is that the U.S. will transition. Theyll be doing training. Theyll be doing support. Theyll be helping Iraqi Security Forces. They wont be doing combat. Now, question whats a combat troop?

These are going to be U.S. military personnel. They will have the right to shoot in self-defense. Is that a combat troop? The Pentagon says no. If youre an Iraqi civilian, you may beg to differ.

INSKEEP: The president also said the U.S. has killed quote far more al-Qaida fighters and their affiliates this past year, 2009, than in 2008. Is it true?

KELLY: Thats an awfully difficult one to fact check because it is so hard to independently verify these numbers. Youre talking about strikes, primarily in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Strikes, that on the Pakistani side, the U.S. does not even officially acknowledge nor does Pakistan. What we know is the U.S. has stepped up those drone strikes significantly in the years since President Obama took office. They are clearly getting people, how many are civilians, how many are bad guys, difficult to say. And we do know the two biggest bad guys - Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri - still out there.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise, thanks very much.

KELLY: Youre welcome.

INSKEEP: We also had help this morning on our fact check of the presidents State of The Union speech, with NPRs Jackie Northam, Christopher Joyce, Julie Rovner, John Ydstie, and David Welna. Thanks to you all.

Youre listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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