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How Much Truth Was There in President Obama's Pre-Super Bowl Interview?


"There is no doubt we need additional revenue..."

In an interview with CBS today, President Obama covered a lot of different ground, with everything from football to health care to taxes to gays in the Boy Scouts being discussed at length. You can watch the interview, courtesy of CBS, here:

Naturally enough, the president made a number of statements that may raise eyebrows among observers, and as such, it behooves us to take a look at his various arguments and see which of them are accurate, and which are not. In short order, the president's major arguments are listed below, followed by our analysis:

#1. On Taxes: "I don't think the issue right now is raising rates. The question is, if we're gonna be serious about reducing our deficit, can we combine some smart spending cuts, 'cause there's still some waste in government...and can we lose some loopholes and deductions that folks who are well connected and have a lot of accountants and lawyers can take advantage of, so they end up paying lower rates than a bus driver and a cop...There is no doubt we need additional revenue coupled with smart spending reductions in order to bring down our deficit."

Most of this is too vague to assess factually, however one important point does jump out of this: The president does not want to raise tax rates, only to raise revenues by closing loopholes and deductions. Funnily enough, this is an approach Obama himself derided for its vagueness during the election by circulating clips like this:

#2. On health care: "We spend a lot more on health care than every other country does and we don't get better outcomes."

This is true, but the information presented is incomplete. As American Enterprise Institute scholar Christopher Conover points out:

Critics argue that the U.S. spends too much and gets too little especially compared to single-payer systems such as Great Britain's or Canada's. But the U.S. also has the largest gross domestic product (GDP) on the planet. The issue is whether the U.S. spends too much given its much higher GDP per capita relative to other countries. The conventional wisdom says the U.S. spends 60 percent more than it should given its income. But a more accurate analysis of the same data shows that the U.S. spends only 1.5 percent too much. In contrast, France spends 19 percent too much, while single-payer countries spend at least 20 percent too little. This suggests a degree of rationing most Americans would find unacceptable.[...]

The foregoing figures merely suggest that other countries do not necessarily have a magic bullet when it comes to limiting health expenditures. Families are understandably worried about health care costs. In 2010, more than 20 percent of household consumption was devoted to health spending compared to less than 5 percent in 1929. Within five years,health spending will overtake shelter as the largest single category of household consumption. But nearly 75 percent of health spending is hidden from families - that is, the amounts paid out-of-pocket for (1) the worker share of group health premiums and Medicare Part A payroll taxes, (2) voluntary premiums paid for non-group health insurance (Medicare Parts B and D) and (3) out-of-pocket medical expenses not covered by insurance amount to only six cents of every dollar of family income. The rest is hidden in the form of employer payments for health insurance and taxes used to pay more than half of all health spending.

In other words, the United States might spend more in absolute terms, but relative to its population and Gross Domestic Product, its spending on health care is arguably fairly standard. This doesn't mean that health care is an issue to be ignored, but simply stating this statistic doesn't justify an overhaul on its own.

#3. On women in combat: "Women as a practical matter are now in combat. They may not get treated as if they're in combat, but when they're in theater, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, they are vulnerable, they are wounded, and they have been killed, and they have carried out their jobs with extraordinary patriotism and distinction...What we should not do is somehow prevent them from advancing in an institution that we all revere."

The president is actually correct here. The question in the case of women serving in combat is not whether they will do it at some point (women have served in combat under extenuating circumstances), but whether women who join the military will be trained to serve in combat with the expectation that they will do it, rather than the understanding that they are unlikely to do so.

However, this doesn't get to some of the objections that critics of the Department of Defense's recent decision to train women for combat have, such as the idea that training women for combat might induce other women to leave the military or never enlist, or that physical standards might be diluted in the aftermath of such a move. Granted, women in armies as diverse as Canada's or Israel's serve very successfully in combat without issue. But this particular argument doesn't answer the objections of critics. Moreover, the idea of women being barred from advancement because of this regulation is flatly false. There are many high ranking female soldiers in the military.

#4. On gays in the Boy Scouts of America: "I think that my attitude is that gays and lesbians should have access and opportunity the same way everybody else does, in every institution and walk of life."

This is not something that can be refuted factually. However, one might reasonably wonder what the president thinks his role would be in pushing this preferred approach. The Boy Scouts of America are, after all, a private organization and not entirely beholden to the government's standards of discrimination.

#5. On the risk of a second recession: "The reason that the economy shrank a little bit despite the fact that housing's recovering, manufacturing is going strong, car sales up, the truth is that overall there were a lot of positive signs in the economy. The big problem was defense spending was cut 22 percent...What I've said repeatedly is Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis. That freezes up consumers, it gets businesses worried."

This is the most factually meaty bit of the president's interview, and as such, we need to take a look at it piece by piece. The idea that the housing market is "recovering," while there is evidence for it, is hotly contested by some experts. Manufacturing's recovery is less ambiguous, as is the recent increase in car sales. Finally, the idea that defense spending caused a contraction in the economy is incomplete. Defense spending is certainly one factor, but how much of one is contested by experts.

Nevertheless, the president's citation of defense spending as a reason for the economy weakening is not wrong, though it may upset members of his base. Last year around this time, liberal Democrats were some of the fiercest proponents of cutting defense spending. Now it appears that might wreck the economic recovery.

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