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Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013, 8:58 p.m.

Obama carefully picks figures to create favorable comparisons

A State of the Union address is often difficult to fact-check, no matter who is president. The speech is a product of many hands and is carefully vetted, so major errors of fact are relatively rare. But State of the Union addresses often are very political speeches, an argument for the president's policies, so context is sometimes missing.
Here is a guide through some of President Barack Obama's more fact-challenged claims on Tuesday, in the order in which he made them.
"After years of grueling recession, our businesses have created over 6 million new jobs."
The president is cherry-picking a number that puts the improvement in the economy in the best possible light. The low point in jobs was reached in February 2010, and there has indeed been a gain of about 6 million jobs since then, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But the data also show that since the start of his presidency, about 1.2 million jobs have been created - and the number of jobs in the economy is about 3.2 million fewer than when the recession began in December 2007.
"We buy . . . less foreign oil than we have in 20" years.
This claim lacks context. The Energy Department has cited a host of reasons why foreign oil imports have declined, noting the main reason was "a significant contraction in consumption" because of the poor economy and changes in efficiency that began "two years before the 2008 crisis" -- in other words, before Obama took office.
"Over the last few years, both parties have worked together to reduce the deficit by more than $2.5 trillion -- mostly through spending cuts, but also by raising tax rates on the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. As a result, we are more than halfway towards the goal of $4 trillion in deficit reduction that economists say we need to stabilize our finances."
This is debatable, depending on how you do the numbers. Many budget analysts do measure the decline in deficits from August 2010 -- which was a high point for spending -- and Obama's figure is derived from that date. (He also adds in interest savings from reducing anticipated debts, which is different from actually cutting spending or adding revenue.)
But agreement starts to break down quickly about the $4 trillion goal, which translates to just $1.5 trillion in additional work. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, in a recent report, says that $2.7 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years has been enacted so far, including tax increases, but that $2.4 trillion more is needed to reduce the ratio of debt to gross domestic product to 70 percent. The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues instead that just $1.5 trillion is needed to achieve a 73 percent ratio. Those numbers could have real-world consequences for government programs.
"On Medicare, I'm prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health-care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission."
With this carefully crafted phrase, Obama wants us to compare the savings in 2022. Granted, that would be six years after Obama's second term ends. But administration officials argue that changes in health-care policies take time to achieve budget savings, and that the right mix can produce greater savings in the long run.
Using Congressional Budget Office estimates of the president's budget, we see that over 10 years, Obama's proposals would achieve $337 billion from 2013 to 2022, compared with $483 billion for the plan suggested by the Bowles-Simpson commission in the same time period.
However, in 2022, both would achieve the same amount of savings: $68 billion.
"After shedding jobs for more than 10 years, our manufacturers have added about 500,000 jobs over the past three."
Obama again is cherry-picking a jobs number. The low point for manufacturing jobs was reached in January 2010, and so there has been a gain of 500,000 jobs since then. But Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that the number of manufacturing jobs is still 600,000 fewer than when Obama took office in the depths of the recession - and 1.8 million fewer than when the recession began in December 2007.
"I ask this Congress to declare that women should earn a living equal to their efforts, and finally pass the Paycheck Fairness Act this year."
The administration's backup document for this statement asserted that "on average women generally make 23 cents on the dollar less than men." But the White House is using a figure (annual wages, from the Census Bureau) that makes the disparity appear the greatest. The Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, shows that the gap is 19 cents when looking at weekly wages. The gap is even smaller when you look at hourly wages -- 14 cents.
In other words, because women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics may be less reliable for examining the key focus of the legislation, wage discrimination.
Indeed, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis surveyed economic literature and concluded that "research suggests that the actual gender wage gap (when female workers are compared with male workers who have similar characteristics) is much lower than the raw wage gap." They cited one survey, prepared for the Labor Department, which concluded that when such differences are accounted for, much of the hourly wage gap dwindled to about 5 cents on the dollar.
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