The Weakest Presidential Fact Check Ever?

Usually, when a reporter files a fact-check on a presidential press conference, there are some definitive mistakes listed. Clay Waters at TimesWatch noted that even The New York Times found that Obama's deficit-cutting claims would only be true if he left every troop in Iraq for another ten years. But after Wednesday night's press conference was aired live on National Public Radio, NPR health reporter Julie Rovner signaled that Obama may have goofed when he said that nationalizing health care wouldn't add to the deficit, but "there's a distinction about whether or not you think that adds to the deficit or not. I guess it's people's call to make on their own." Here's how it unfolded:

MADELEINE BRAND, anchor: I think there's a couple of places where the president may have sort of misstated a few things. There was one place, where he said that he wasn't going to let it add to the deficit. Here's what he said.

BARACK OBAMA: I've also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade, and I mean it.

BRAND: Julie, [a] little fact checking here, any place where he overstated his case?

ROVNER: Well, I think that was the place. And I think, you know, there's about $250 billion in the bill that would go to help doctors not take a 20 percent pay cut next year. The administration says it's not going to count that towards the --towards how much the bill costs, the Congressional Budget Office begs to disagree. They said that money is being spent. So, there's a distinction about whether or not you think that adds to the deficit or not. I guess it's people's call to make on their own.

That complete failure to locate a definitive answer may have occurred because on Saturday morning’s Weekend Edition, Rovner tried to claim that CBO director Douglas Elmendorf did not project that the House or Senate health bills would add to the deficit:

CBO Director Elmendorf's comments were widely interpreted to mean that the plans would increase the federal deficit over the next 10 years. That's not true. But what he was really saying was perhaps more disappointing to lawmakers crafting the bills, that the measures wouldn't slow the nation's total health spending in the long run and might in fact increase federal spending.

That runs in direct contradiction to CBO’s estimate on the House bill from the day before. From Elmendorf’s blog: "According to CBO’s and JCT’s assessment, enacting H.R. 3200 would result in a net increase in the federal budget deficit of $239 billion over the 2010-2019 period."

In the Bush years, liberals like Arianna Huffington complained that on issues when liberals are obviously right and conservatives are obviously wrong (such as global warming), the conservatives should not get any air time. But now, when liberals hold the presidency and the Congress, reporters like Rovner can’t seem to identify who’s right or wrong, since it might be perceived as politically damaging to the Democrats.

Usually, NPR's idea of a debate of pundits is between liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and squishy, sometimes Obama-praising New York Times columnist David Brooks. On Wednesday night, Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal editorial-page staff sat in the Brooks chair, and let Obama have it:

MADELEINE BRAND: Dorothy Rabinowitz of The Wall Street Journal, what stuck out for you in the news conference tonight?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: What stuck out was that this is the president's, what, fourth press conference, which is a lot more than George Bush in all of his years. I think it's a risky proposal, because I think you see it tonight: charm, his belief in his own capacity to persuade, which is very considerable, is not going to carry him through these very hard questions.

And I think you can see from the questions reporters put, that they were not satisfied. The happy talk, the lack of specifics is what is nagging everyone. And I think the low point came in that moment when a reporter asked him: Why are you pushing through this thing in August? What's the rush?

What is his answer? His answer could've been written by a bad television script: I hear so often from people whose daughters, like the family whose daughter is dying of leukemia, that's why we have to rush. Okay, does this make any sense? Leukemia is going to be put away if he doesn't get it through by August?

The second one is, of course, there are these problems if you don't give them -- none of this is the truth, of course. The obvious truth, which is they're worried about Congress people facing election, facing their constituents and they'd better get it out of the way.

So, I think there we are. And we have, you know, the lack of specificity, the trust me mode that in which these conferences are conducted, I am -- say it openly -- I am your president, you cannot be cynics. That is the underlying charge. If you do not believe, you're just too cynical. Without government, all of this is, of course, charmingly put. But it is very vague. The question of things that are never spoken of, like, rationing.

Brand turned the rationing question over to Dionne, who fussed that critics of the Clinton health plan raised the same charge back then, and then after it failed, "everyone" was "unhappy" with managed care plans that rationed care.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis