Thursday, August 30, 2012

PolitiFlub: PolitiFact Wisconsin, the Obama promise and the Janesville GM plant (Updated)

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

PolitiFact has earned its status as the least-dependable of the stable of left-leaning fact check organizations.  PolitiFact Wisconsin gives us one more sparkling example supporting that judgment with a fact check of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Ryan said President Obama broke a campaign promise to keep the Janesville (Wisc.) plant open.   PolitiFact Wisconsin detected no such promise from Mr. Obama.

Here's what then-candidate Obama said in February 2008 (bold emphasis added) during a speech in Janesville:
This can be America’s future. I know that General Motors received some bad news yesterday, and I know how hard your Governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant. But I also know how much progress you’ve made – how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out. And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years. The question is not whether a clean energy economy is in our future, it’s where it will thrive. I want it to thrive right here in the United States of America; right here in Wisconsin; and that’s the future I’ll fight for as your President.
Importantly, Obama opened his speech with references to the plant.  He then sketched his vision of America before mentioning how the Janesville plant could stay open if the government provides support.  In that context, Obama pledged to provide that support.  Does Mr. Obama use the specific term "promise" in his statement?  No, certainly not.  Does he guarantee the plant will remain open?  Again, no.  However, there is little doubt  that every person in Janesville listening to his speech took it as a pledge from the president to work to enact policies to keep the plant open. Mr. Obama did, in fact, pledge to do just that.

PolitiFact Wisconsin located no such pledge.

But it gets worse.  Much worse. PolitiFact builds its conclusion primarily on its claim that the Janesville plant closed before Mr. Obama took office (bold emphasis added):
Ryan said Obama broke his promise to keep a Wisconsin GM plant from closing. But we don't see evidence he explicitly made such a promise -- and more importantly, the Janesville plant shut down before he took office.

We rate Ryan's statement False.
GM announced the likely permanent closure of the Janesville plant in June of 2008, less than four months after Mr. Obama pledged to work toward an agenda that would keep the plant open for "another hundred years."

So, when is the plant closed?  When it closes for the last time?  When it produces its last GM vehicle?  When the company announces its permanent closure on a particular date?

When President Bush left office, he had provided Chrysler and GM loans to keep them going until the automakers could present restructuring plans to the Obama administration in April.

GM announced the final closing of the Janesville plant in April of 2008, and the final Chevy Tahoe came off the line in December 2008, before Obama took office as president.  On the other hand, the plant stayed open so that GM could build trucks for Isuzu:
The company stopped building SUVs at the plant just before Christmas.

That decision left about 1,200 workers unemployed.At the time GM said a crew would remain to complete an order for Isuzu.
But by June of 2009, while the Obama administration was still negotiating GM's fate and after completing the work for Isuzu, Janesville continued to maintain hope that its plant might reopen:
JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- There is a lot of optimism in Janesville today, after receiving word GM could reopen one of its idle plants to produce new fuel efficient cars, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce development.
If the GM restructuring deal brokered by the Obama administration resulted in continued production at GM's plant in Janesville, is there any doubt at all that Obama would receive credit for delivering on a promise?  Especially if the work involved hybrid vehicles?  The opportunity was there for the taking.

Why is so much of this information missing from a fact check?

Update 8/30/2012, 4:15 p.m.:

NPR fills in some of the missing information PolitiFact omitted.

Correction 8/31/2012:  Original version had wrong date for Obama's Janesville speech on first reference:  "Here's what President-elect Obama said in December 2008 (bold emphasis added) during a speech in Janesville:"  That sentence has been made accurate.


  1. Folks: he never says explicitly that he would fight for this auto company. He only says that he would fight for a future that has a clean energy economy. Any reference to the auto plant is done so as "our government" -- "And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need..." in an entirely different paragraph altogether. This in NO way professes to promising that BARACK OBAMA will give this assistance, but rather hoping that the current government might.

    It's nuanced, no doubt. But it absolutely does not say that Barack Obama promised to keep the plant open.

    1. LordPJ,

      President Obama opens his words by recognizing the plant. He's speaking at that location for a reason.

      The body of his speech outlines his policy agenda.

      At the end of his policy agenda, he suggests that the effects of his agenda will encourage plants like the Janesville plant to remain open.

      Obama pledges to fight for the agenda hi outlined.

      You're quite right that President Obama did not explicitly promise to keep the plant open. But of course that was the message his speech communicated. That effect was deliberate. You figure the crowd would cheer him much if he says "Well, I'm not promising to keep this plant running, but I do pledge to fight for policies A, B and C! And maybe your plant will stay open! Who knows?" Obama deliberately raised their hopes.

  2. I have found a few of the Politifact statements that I've read to be lacking. Ultimately I have now found my way to this post.

    After reading more of the details from this post, I have the following to say:

    The truth may exist between what is stated both here and at PolitiFact. Obama, in speaking to Janesville is implicitly speaking in terms of hope. He uses the words "believe" and "the future I'll fight for" directly to the town. He is telling the people that it is his goal to do what he can to help them. This statement is stronger than PolitiFact gives credit; however,it is not a promise to keep the plant open; his promise is to fight for the future he believes in. In other words, he'll do his best to shape the government such that the plant can be maintained. This view should not be seen as a broken promise but rather as a goal not achieved.

    The tidbit about the plant already being closed is also misleading. I don't believe this let's Obama off the hook; however, the plant was fully shut down fairly quickly after idle, giving Obama little time to implement change. There are many unknown variables at play. Without more information it is difficult to cast blaim on Obama. If there is evidence that Obama did not broker with GM to keep the plant open, then there is indeed foul play. In my opinion, brokering probably took place, but negotiations failed due to the type of factory. The plant was producing SUVs which weren't selling prior to shutdown. How much would it cost to retool the plant for hybrids (which tend to be significantly different than SUVs and include very different technology)? What about the knowledge of workers for vehicles different from SUVs? This could be a complicated issue.

    I believe that the closing of the plant and its failure to open is likely more complicated than "Obama failed."

    Overall I would consider Ryan's statement a half-truth as opposed to false.

    Obama did speak a message of hope to the people, and he wasn't able to deliver. His record supporting greener technology is demonstrated through successes and failures (Solyndra, Wind Turbines, etc.), so it seems he has been successful in some arenas at promoting new technology with government loans. I also know that the bailout of automakers did occur. The government did stand by automakers, and the government has pushed a greener agenda. Unfortunately this plant didn't stay open. The future Obama fought for was in progress. Unfortunately, Obama's belief in said future supporting the plant fell through. Is this Obama's fault? What happened in the dealings with GM? Because of these uncertainties, I'd find it difficult to believe Obama didn't do what he could to keep that plant open.

    Regarding the statement that "Obama would take credit...," Politicians take credit even when things are not directly in their control, even if promises to do so were not made. I don't find that argument compelling.

    1. @ Chris Kennedy

      Fair enough.

      We don't believe in using PolitiFact's system to rate statements. We think it's too flawed to use for its intended purpose. We would simply say that there is too much truth to Ryan's statement to warrant a "False" as PolitiFact defines it, particularly when compared to its other ratings. And we're critical of the important omissions from the PolitiFact version of events.

      PolitiFact often drops a literally true statement down to a "Mostly True" or even "Half True" rating based on material omitted from a claim. How can PolitiFact justify failing according to its own standards?


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