Fact Checking President Obama's State of the Union Address

Economic growth to progress in Afghanistan -- ABC News checks Obama's claims.

January 26, 2011, 9:41 AM

WASHINGTON, Jan. 26, 2011— -- In an optimistic State of the Union address, President Obama on Tuesday called for bipartisanship and a renewed investment in the nation's education and energy infrastructure.

The president hailed economic growth and the advances his administration has made, from health care to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ABC News takes a close look at some of the claims in the president's second annual State of the Union address to the joint Houses of Congress.

Tax Cuts:

"Thanks to the tax cuts we passed, Americans' paychecks are a little bigger today. Every business can write off the full cost of new investments that they make this year. And these steps, taken by Democrats and Republicans, will grow the economy and add to the more than 1 million private sector jobs created last year."

The White House inked a deal with Republicans last month to extend for 13 months of Bush-era tax cuts that were set to expire at the end of 2010. The tax cut extension bill passed in early December, much to the ire of many House Democrats.

By enacting a temporary break on the Social Security payroll tax, Americans, on average, will see a $2,000 increase in their paychecks this year. But not all income groups will benefit from the change. For those in the lower income group, earning salaries of less than $20,000 per year, the new tax package actually means a smaller paycheck. That's because the extension cut the Making Work Pay tax credit that gave working individuals $400 and couples filing jointly $800 on their 2009 and 2010 tax returns.

The bill also included a provision for businesses that would allow both large and small businesses to write off the full cost of most of their investments in 2011. The Treasury Department estimated that this could generate more than $50 billion in additional investment this year.

As for private sector jobs created last year, the president's assessment was on track. Nearly 1.3 million jobs were created in the private sector in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Education Reform:

"Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."

The president established the Race to the Top program in February 2009, one of his first steps in the education sector as commander in chief. The $4.3 billion program was part of the Recovery Act and is designed to reward states that are "implementing significant education reforms." It constitutes less than 1 percent of total U.S. education spending, which is expected to reach or exceed $900 billion this year.

Over the course of the competition, 35 states and the District of Columbia adopted rigorous common academic standards in reading and math, and 34 states changed laws or policies to improve education.

The program has led to much debate and strife over some schools being left behind in this competitive process, especially in states with strong union presence. Colorado and Louisiana have received nation-wide recognition for their education reforms, but their proposals for Race to the Top failed to win widespread union support.

Critics also doubt the long-term viability of the plan.

"Throughout the process, states got much credit for making changes to laws that actually, in most cases, will have little to no impact as long as teacher contracts control the classroom, and quality school choices are limited or nonexistent," Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, said in statement in August, when the program winners were announced. "While there is no question that Race to the Top has been the administration's positive bully pulpit on education, the dramatic need for laws to change remains largely undone."

Economic Recovery:

"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."

President Obama hailed the rebound of the securities markets and corporate profits as signs the economy is recovering from recession. The data show both claims are true.

The Dow Jones industrial average, one measure of the markets' pulse, stood above 13,000 in December 2007, on the eve of the recession. It dipped below 9,000 by late 2008. But at the end of 2010, the DJI had bounced back to 11,500 and has been climbing.

U.S. businesses also reported record earnings last year, closing out the third quarter of 2010 at a rate of $1.659 trillion a year. That's a sea change from the start of the great recession in 2008, when the bottom fell out of corporate profits. Businesses reported earning only $1.258 trillion in 2009.


"I strongly believe that we should take on, once and for all, the issue of illegal immigration. And I am prepared to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers who are now living in the shadows. ... And let's stop expelling talented, responsible young people who could be staffing our research labs or starting a new business, who could be further enriching this nation."

Obama delivered a brief and familiar call for a bipartisan effort on immigration reform Tuesday night. But he also singled out a desire to end the deportation of young, educated illegal immigrants, presumably those eligible for the Dream Act, which was narrowly defeated in the last Congress.

Obama said those immigrants can "further enrich this nation."

Several nonpartisan studies have found that allowing more highly skilled young workers to remain in or immigrate to the U.S. would benefit the economy.

In the technology and engineering fields alone, for example, nearly a quarter of all new businesses are founded by immigrants, and they account for a significant chunk of jobs. Many of these entrepreneurs came to the United States as students and stayed.

But immigration opponents say legalization of young immigrants -- regardless of their education level or military service -- could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated late last year that one version of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 currently undocumented aliens, would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion in the first decade because of increased tax revenue from immigrant residents.

But the same study also projects the bill could add between $5 billion and $20 billion to the deficit by 2060 through generation of additional benefit program costs.

State of the Union 2011 Fact Check

Health Care:

"What I'm not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a pre-existing condition. I'm not willing to tell James Howard, a brain cancer patient from Texas, that his treatment might not be covered. I'm not willing to tell Jim Houser, a small business man from Oregon, that he has to go back to paying $5,000 more to cover his employees."

While it's true that the Affordable Care Act bars insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, the provision for adults does not take effect until 2014. In 2010, a temporary program was created that would provide health coverage to individuals with pre-existing conditions who had been uninsured for six months at the least. Also starting last year, insurance companies were prohibited from denying children with pre-existing conditions health insurance.

The new health care law provides some tax credits for small businesses, but they vary depending on the size of the company. Small businesses with 25 employees or less whose average annual salary is less than $50,000 are eligible for tax credits of up to 35 percent of employer cost between 2010 and 2013, and up to 50 percent after 2014, if the employer purchases insurance through the exchange. That still leaves out a majority of businesses that are defined as small by the Small Business Administration.

Medicare and Medicaid:

"This means further reducing health care costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. 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."

According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, implementing the changes in Medicare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program mandated under the Affordable Care Act would actually cost the administration $5 billion to $10 billion over the next decade. CBO did, however, estimate that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades compared with the past two decades.

But a report by economic experts at the Department of Health and Human Services in April found that Medicare cuts in the law may be unrealistic and unsustainable, and may not control costs that the president hoped for. The report by Medicare's Office of the Actuary projected that Medicare cuts could drive about 15 percent of hospitals and other institutional providers into the red, "possibly jeopardizing access" to care for seniors.

It's true that the CBO found that repealing the health care law would negatively affect the deficit. CBO estimates that undoing the bill would add to the federal deficit by $230 billion over the next decade and leave 32 million more Americans uninsured. Republicans have dismissed those numbers, saying that estimate is based on figures in the health care law, which are not quite accurate.

The Deficit:

"We are living with a legacy of deficit spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people's pockets."

Ten years ago, in 2001, the country actually experienced a surplus but that trend started changing in 2002 when the country ran a budget deficit of $157.8 billion, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Politifact. But the deficit wasn't unique to the administration of President George W. Bush.

Historical data analyzed by Politifact shows that the country was under a budget deficit for more than two decades, from at least 1970 to 1998.

Today, the CBO reported that the 2011 budget deficit will shatter all records, at $1.5 trillion, or 9.8 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).

State of the Union 2011 Fact Check

Trade Deals:

"Before I took office, I made it clear that we would enforce our trade agreements, and that I would only sign deals that keep faith with American workers and promote American jobs. That's what we did with Korea, and that's what I intend to do as we pursue agreements with Panama and Colombia, and continue our Asia Pacific and global trade talks."

Obama hailed a new free trade agreement with Korea in December as a "win for American workers," saying it would boost U.S. exports by $11 billion and support 70,000 American jobs. But one group of workers the agreement leaves out is American cattle farmers and beef exporters.

While the Free Trade Agreement calls for all tariffs on U.S. beef to be eliminated, the South Koreans won't let any U.S. beef products into their country from an animal older than 30 months. They blocked imports in 2003 after the "mad cow" outbreak caused alarm over U.S. beef and the ban has frustrated U.S. beef producers ever since.

Iraq Troop Withdrawal:

"Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high. American combat patrols have ended, violence is down and a new government has been formed."

The United States withdrew most of its combat forces from Iraq in August and plans to pull back the remaining 50,000 troops by the end of 2011, as part of the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq. But violence in the war-torn country is far from abating.

July 2010, the month before most combat forces pulled out, was the deadliest month for Iraqi civilians in two years. In recent days, more than a hundred Iraqis have been wounded in attacks against Shiite pilgrims and other minorities.

War in Afghanistan:

"Thanks to our heroic troops and civilians, fewer Afghans are under the control of the insurgency. There will be tough fighting ahead, and the Afghan government will need to deliver better governance. But we are strengthening the capacity of the Afghan people and building an enduring partnership with them."

The president portrayed an optimistic picture of the war in Afghanistan, but on the ground, there is an alternative narrative that the war is not going so well.

A quarterly assessment of the war by the umbrella security office for nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, in Afghanistan says there is "indisputable evidence" that conditions in Afghanistan are deteriorating.

Attacks have increased by two-thirds over already record levels in 2009, the "highest annual growth rate we have recorded," the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office says. "Their momentum would appear unaffected by U.S.-led counterinsurgency measures."

There was also a 42 percent increase in fatalities in 2010 from 2009.

The group dismisses U.S. claims that there has been significant progress in the south: "Massive interventions in Helmand and Kandahar ... achieved little other than to diversify and diffuse the insurgency."

Al Qaeda in Pakistan:

"In Pakistan, al Qaeda's leadership is under more pressure than at any point since 2001. Their leaders and operatives are being removed from the battlefield. Their safe havens are shrinking."

Drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas, which have grown steadily in the last year, have killed a number of top al Qaeda operatives, but the threat from the group is far from over.

The secretary of state's annual terrorism report released in August said the group was still resilient and remained the biggest threat to U.S. interests around the world. The report pointed to Pakistan and Yemen as countries that were most at risk from al Qaeda and found that the group still had enough outreach in Europe and elsewhere to be able to recruit new members.

In Pakistan, terror attacks continue to plague citizens and suicide attacks reputedly by al Qaeda-affiliated groups have rocked the country. Just today, a teen suicide bomber killed at least 10 people in a suicide attack in Lahore and another attack took place in the southern port city of Karachi.

ABC News' Mary Bruce and Nick Schifrin contributed to this report.

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