Fact-Checkers Have Become the Janissaries of the Obama Legacy

President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2020. (Leah Millis/Pool/via Reuters)
They hide their worldview behind a patina of impartiality, claiming to be arbiters of the truth.

For me, at least, the most grating aspect of contemporary “fact-checking” isn’t the dubious journalistic nature of the project, or the endlessly nitpicking of every Republican utterance, whether it’s particularly misleading or not. It’s the increasingly popular effort to try to credit Barack Obama for everything good that’s happened during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Take the bulk of this Washington Post fact check of Trump’s State of the Union speech. Sure, it’s a litany of partisan arguments masquerading as factual correctives. But it’s more.

The Post takes issue, for example, with Trump’s boast that, thanks to a “bold regulatory-reduction campaign, the United States has become the number-one producer of oil and natural gas in the world, by far.” In truth, the fact checkers declare, “the energy revolution he takes credit for began under Obama.”

So Trump, who has attempted to roll back Obama-era restrictions on gas and oil drilling, and who opposes the effort of Democrats — including Obama’s former vice president — to institute federal fracking bans, can’t boast about the booming energy markets, but Obama, whose efforts to undermine production were first repelled by a Republican Congress in 2009 and then by the Supreme Court in 2016, can?

It’s quite the trick to not only censure Trump for bragging about oil and gas production but then, in the same fact check, confer on all the credit on Obama, who did everything in his power — including banning drilling on most public lands — to inhibit exploration and production.

And when Trump boasts that “everybody said that criminal-justice reform couldn’t be done, but I got it done and the people in this room got it done,” the Washington Post notes that he’s being deceptive because the president’s legislative victory was merely an “extension of Obama’s efforts in 2010.”

First of all, Trump gave credit to Congress for getting the bill passed, and didn’t even mention Obama. Nevertheless, the Post took us back to a previous “fact check” of another incident in which they ding Trump with Three Pinocchios for offering the wholly accurate claim that he signed a bill that Obama couldn’t. When Trump says he was able to craft passable legislation that his predecessor had failed to do, he is upsetting Obama’s janissaries, not making a misleading claim.

That’s just a small sampling of often picayune, disingenuous, and unreliable fact checks that litter most of the efforts of the Post — which mentions Obama 13 times in a piece about Trump’s speech — the Associated Press, CNN, and so on.

Trump says many things that aren’t true, of course. So I was somewhat surprised by the dearth of outright falsehood that fact checkers were able to uncover in the president’s State of the Union. Not that it slowed anyone down.

Even when Trump offered some banally accurate observation — “40 million American families have an average $2,200 extra thanks to our child tax credit” — the Post fact checkers noted that “this is an example of Trump using correct numbers, but . . .”

What comes after those “buts” aren’t corrections, they’re arguments pushing back against the political conclusions of the president. These are completely legitimate arguments to make, and many columnists already make them, but few have anything to do with checking hard facts.

Of course, neither Trump nor Obama, nor any president, really deserves all the credit they take for job creation in a capitalistic society. (Some of us like to point out that the unprecedented era of prosperity we’re now enjoying has existed during historic gridlock in Washington.) All presidents brag about economic growth under their watch, but only one, as far as I can tell, is barred from taking credit for any good news that didn’t start immediately after his term began.

When scrutinizing Trump’s economic record, our fact checkers oscillate from the hyper-contextual argument to the raw data, depending on which strategy works best to give Obama credit.

In reality, Obama, hampered by a Republican Congress, did virtually nothing on the economic front from 2010 onward. Why he deserves any special credit for the growth a decade out is a bit of a mystery.

But if we’re going to talk about Obama’s record, let’s mention that post-recession economies typically offer huge and dynamic job-growth potential. Yet Obama’s initiatives brought us the slowest recovery in American history. Trump had far less running room and so has a strong argument to make that tax cuts and rolling back the regulatory regime helped sustain what is now unprecedented growth, historically low unemployment, and a tightening labor market that has led to higher wage gains.

He’s also right that the media-coronated expert class — the same people often quoted in fact-checking pieces to debunk his economic arguments — claimed that it wouldn’t happen.

Now, admittedly, the above piece was written from the prism of my worldview, with all its ideological pretensions and value judgments. The only difference between this piece and most fact checks, then, is that the latter hide behind a patina of impartiality, allowing their authors to claim to be arbiters of truth. And that truth, you might not be surprised, always seems to skew in one direction.


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