Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: Obama, Bush and the auto bailout

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations.

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

 Apparently context doesn't matter much, depending on the subject.

The issue:
(clipped from PolitiFact.com)

The fact checkers:

Molly Moorhead:  writer, researcher
Martha M. Hamilton:  editor


This fact check serves as an outstanding example of narrowing the story focus to fish a grain of truth out of an overall falsehood.

The incompetence is overpowering.  Note that PolitiFact frames the issue by stipulating that the $13 billion "given" by the Bush administration was gone "By the time Obama took office."   That bit of timing isn't mentioned in the film, so far as I can tell, though I was able to note that it used a Dec. 2, 2008 television news clip to emphasize the immediacy of the crisis faced by President Obama.

The film and PolitiFact omit a number of important facts.  First, GM received another $4 billion loan in February under the agreement worked out with the Bush administration.   Part of the agreement required the two automakers to submit plans for achieving financial stability by February.  The report of the Congressional Oversight Panel details the response from the Obama administration:
On February 15, 2009, President Obama announced the formation of an interagency Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry (Task Force), that would assume responsibility for reviewing the Chrysler and GM viability plans.
The timing is far more complicated than either the film or PolitiFact lets on, and the loans from Bush were not necessarily "gone" when Obama took office, particularly in the case of the $4 billion received by GM in February, though that amount is not counted in the $13 billion through the magic of cherry picking the facts.

Let's pick up with PolitiFact's telling (bold emphasis added):
On the subject of Detroit, car company CEOs appear onscreen asking for money in Washington, followed by pictures of empty factories and dire news headlines. The movie talks about the financial pressures on the new president and the unpopularity with the public of more bailouts. But Obama, [narrator Tom] Hanks says, acted anyway to help American workers.

"He decided to intervene, but in exchange for help the president would demand action. The Bush administration had given the car companies $13 billion, and the money was now gone," Hanks says.

Then President Bill Clinton appears onscreen to lend his voice.

"He didn’t just give the car companies the money, and he didn’t give the UAW the money," Clinton says. "He said you guys gotta work together and come up, and everybody’s gotta have some skin in the game here. You gotta modernize the automobile industry."
This segment of the film is not about the history of $13 billion out of a total of $17 billion loaned to automakers by the Bush administration.  It is fully intended to build a contrast between the incoming president and his supposedly irresponsible predecessor.  That point is extremely misleading, as we shall continue to observe.

Bush authorized initial loans to Chrysler and GM (and their respective financing arms) before leaving office, using money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program. Chrysler initially received $4 billion, and GM got $13.4 billion in bridge loans meant to keep the companies afloat for a little longer.
Apparently the math amounts to $4 billion plus $13.4 billion equals $13 billion.  And that $13 billion was gone by Jan. 20 even though $884 million was loaned to GMAC on Jan. 16.  It lasted only four days by PolitiFact's account.

Of course the excess $4 billion was loaned in February as described above.  You just don't get to learn that from the PolitiFact version of events.

Early in 2009 [mid February], Obama convened a task force to study the companies’ viability. Both were required [through the agreement with the Bush administration] to submit plans for getting back to solvency, but both failed, the task force determined. In the meantime, they were running short of money again.
Pardon my editorial counterspin--which shouldn't be necessary for a fact check.  Unfortunately it is necessary.  GM, by the way, received its last Bush loan on Feb. 17, two days after Obama announced his task force.

A report from the Congressional Oversight Panel details the chronology of the spending, including an additional $6.36 billion that GM received between March and May 2009.
The $6.36 billion does not include the $4 billion loaned in February under the agreement with the Bush administration.  Nor does it include $8.5 billion sunk into Chrysler by the Obama administration as part of its restructuring.  Neither does it include the $30.1 billion subsequently sunk into GM as part of its eventual restructuring.  Both the latter figures come from the Congressional Oversight Panel's report PolitiFact cited.

PolitiFact interviewed former Obama team member Steve Rattner about the bailout numbers.  PolitiFact presents Rattner as agreeing that the funds from the Bush administration were exhausted "before we really were in the saddle."  Rattner states that the loans from the Bush administration weren't intended to rescue GM and Chrysler but rather to tide them over until the Obama administration could deal with the situation.

PolitiFact does not totally ignore the film's point about Bush:
We also think it’s worth mentioning the implication in the video that the Bush administration did not put enough restrictions on the money. "He decided to intervene, but in exchange for help the president would demand action," narrator Hanks says just before mentioning the Bush loans.
In case PolitiFact isn't the only party who missed it, note that the filmmaker uses the quotation of Bill Clinton to hammer the point all the more.  It was the main point of the segment, and it was untrue.

What's the verdict?

The Obama campaign movie says, "the Bush administration had given the car companies $13 billion and the money was now gone."

It's important to note that the $13 billion was provided as loans, not as grants, as the wording might suggest.

Referring to the time Obama took office, January 2009, GM and Chrysler by then had received almost $14 billion in bailout money. News reports also reflect that the money was basically used up. So, that much is correct. But the movie ignores the fact that this was not unexpected. The Bush administration’s loans were always just a temporary lifeline, meant to keep the companies operating so the new president would have time to decide what to do long term.

This is important information left out of the movie’s extensive discussion of the auto bailouts. That the $13 billion was gone when Obama arrived was no surprise. We rate the statement Mostly True.
The film glosses over quite a few facts that PolitiFact fails to note.  The point of the film is the contrast between the president who demands accountability and Bush who simply gives money away to big corporations.  The movie's account of the auto bailout is thorough spin.  Fact checking isolated statements in the fabric of this filmmaker's fiction will never fully reveal the misleading nature of the narrative.

If Obama went against popular sentiment on the bailout then so did Bush.  If Obama demanded accountability then so did Bush, albeit the latter's attempt was hamstrung by the end of his tenure as president.

PolitiFact disgraces itself again by connecting the film's distortion with a "Mostly True" label.

The grades:

Molly Moorhead:  F
Martha M. Hamilton:  F

PolitiFact let the main misleading message of the auto bailout segment slide.  PolitiFact's reporting corrected a fraction of the film's omissions and shades on the truth.  PolitiFact's version is scarcely an improvement on the original.

But President Obama and his campaign might like it.  That's got to count for something.

3/22/12-Added link to original PF article in first paragraph/fixed link to PoP-Jeff

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