The President's Three Pinocchios

By Jill Lawrence

July 17, 2014 6 min read

President Barack Obama is in trouble with a fact checker. Again.

This time it's over poetic license, as people who are not fact checkers might call it — specifically the phrase Obama has been using to characterize the Republican approach to the economy. So far this year, he has said more than once, the GOP has "blocked every serious idea to strengthen the middle class."

That earned him three Pinocchios — just one short of a four-Pinocchio whopper — from Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post fact checker. What Kessler himself earned was predictable.

"I griped about @GlennKesslerWP yesterday, so I owe him a kudo here," tweeted Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the conservative website HotAir.com.

"More hairsplitting BS from the WaPo 'fact-checker.' Obama is fundamentally correct on this point, and everyone knows it," counter-tweeted Dan Froomkin, a senior writer at the leftish-libertarian website, The Intercept.

All fun and partisanship aside, it's never wrong to call out a politician for exaggeration or worse. And as Kessler notes, the attention seems to have gotten instant results. The morning his fact check appeared, Obama reframed this talking point as: "Republicans in Congress keep blocking or voting down some of the ideas that would have the biggest impact on middle-class and working families."

The Republican-controlled House is in fact on a mini-roll these days. It has passed two — count 'em, two — bipartisan bills within the span of a week. One consolidates federal job-training programs and gives states more flexibility, and is awaiting Obama's signature. The other, to replenish the highway trust fund and keep transportation projects on track through May, was sent to the Senate. The president has also signed agriculture and water bills this year.

But there's less here than meets the eye.

The job-training bill could be viewed as an accomplishment, because it is hard to change or eliminate programs in ways that cause lawmakers to lose turf and influence. Yet it's long been recognized that some federal job programs are outdated and duplicative, and both Obama and the GOP have talked repeatedly about revamping them. That consensus was reflected in the 415-6 vote for passage.

The highway bill can also be considered an accomplishment, since conservative lawmakers knew they'd earn demerits from anti-spending groups if they supported it. Most defied the groups, and the bill passed 367-55 — not surprising given hundreds of thousands of construction jobs were at risk. But it's a temporary fix for an ongoing problem.

The agriculture bill includes the food stamp program, a vital support for low-income families and those down on their luck. Yet the first version of the bill that passed the GOP House lopped off the food stamp section. Food stamps were restored but reduced in the bill Obama eventually signed, while crop insurance subsidies that disproportionately benefit wealthy farm operators were increased.

House Speaker John Boehner argues often that the House has passed many jobs bills that the Democratic-controlled Senate refuses to take up. Exhibit A is the so-far futile House drive to jump-start the northern section of the Keystone XL pipeline that would move natural gas from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. Faced with a no-win choice between economic and environmental priorities, the Obama administration has stuck to a painfully, inexcusably slow permitting process that is now on hold pending a legal challenge in Nebraska.

What's striking about Boehner's "Plan For Jobs & Economic Growth," topped by Keystone, is how it highlights different definitions of "help," "jobs" and "solutions." Most of the items on his running list of House-passed jobs bills involve more drilling, more fracking, more mining, much less regulation and no more Obamacare.

Obama has had no luck, meanwhile, getting the House to pass any of his "solutions": extended unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a higher minimum wage, equal pay for women, lower interest rates on existing student loans, a major infrastructure initiative, and comprehensive immigration reform that nonpartisan analysts say would bolster Social Security, shrink the deficit and expand the economy.

Underlying all of this is the BFD factor. Bills to continue to tweak spending on agriculture, transportation and water projects would normally count as routine business. These days they come after struggle and setbacks, sometimes on the brink of a dramatic deadline. Many are gimmicky and short-term, and all are greeted as big deals in the absence of achievements that push beyond the status quo.

Obama's ideas are broader than an industry, a sector or a bill that funds existing programs. He might have deserved those Pinocchios, and he would be wise to watch his words — but just in case anyone was confused, that's what he meant by "serious."

Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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