Friday, December 9, 2016

PolitiFact agrees to disagree with itself on budget cuts

Bless your heart, PolitiFact.

PolitiFact has lately started to wrap up its "Obameter" feature, rating whether President Obama delivered on the set of campaign promises PolitiFact tracked.

One recent item caught our eye, as Obama earned a "Compromise" rating for partially delivering on a re-election campaign promise to cut $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in spending.

Veteran PolitiFact fact checker Louis Jacobson wrote this one.

Jacobson and PolitiFact received some great advice from an expert, then proceeded to veer into the weeds:
"Like anything else in budgeting, it's all about the baseline," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "It's a cut relative to what?"

The most obvious way to judge how much spending went down on Obama's watch is to start with how much spending was expected in 2012, when he made the promise, and then compare that to the amount of spending that actually materialized.
Huh? What happened to the incredibly obvious method of measuring how much was spent in 2012 when he made his promise and then looking about how much was spent at the end of his term in office?

Jacobson's Dec. 5, 2016 Obameter story doesn't even acknowledge the method we're pointing out, yet Jacobson appeared well aware of it when he wrote a budget cut fact check way back in 2014:
First, while the ad implies that the law is slicing Medicare benefits, these are not cuts to current services. Rather, as Medicare spending continues to rise over the next 10 years, it will do so at a slower pace would [sic] have occurred without the law. So claims that Obama would "cut" Medicare need more explanation to be fully accurate.
Jacobson faulted a critic of Obama's health care law for using "cuts" to describe slowing the growth of future spending. Yet Jacobson finds that deceptive method "the most obvious way" to determine whether Obama delivered his promised spending cut.

But at least there's a happy ending to the discrepancy. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has "the most obvious method" counted against it (as deceptive), while President Obama receives the benefit when PolitiFact uses the Republicans' deceptive method to rate the president's promise on cutting spending.

There's nothing wrong with favoring the good guys over the bad guys, right?

Inside Baseball Stuff

In terms of fact-checking, we noted a particularly interesting feature of Louis Jacobson's rating of President Obama's promise of cutting spending by $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion: Obama was promising that spending cut over and above one he was already claiming to have achieved. Though PolitiFact's presentation makes this part of Obama's statement obvious, PolitiFact does not bother to confirm the claim.

Consideration of context serves as a fact checker's primary tool for interpreting claims. If Obama saved $1 trillion before making his promise of equal or greater savings in his second term, the means he used to achieve that savings is the means we should expect him to use to fulfill his promise for his second term unless he specifies differently.

We failed to find any mainstream fact check addressing Obama's claim of saving $1 trillion in 2011:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I-- I have to tell you, David, if-- if you look at my track record over the last two years, I cut spending by over a trillion dollars in 2011.
If Obama did not save $1 trillion in the first place, he cannot fulfill a promise to cut "another" $1 trillion. At best he can fulfill part of the promise: to cut $1 trillion.

Louis Jacobson and PolitiFact did not notice?

Checking whether Obama saved that $1 trillion in 2011 should have served as a prerequisite for rating Obama's second-term promise to save another $1 trillion or more. Fact checkers could then assume Obama would save the second $1 trillion under the same terms as the first.

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