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Fact-Checking the State of the Union Speech

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The right of custom brings us together at a defining hour when decisions are hard and courage is needed.

MONTAGNE: The custom that president referred to was last night's State of the Union speech. He spoke to Congress in crowded House chamber. All this morning we're covering different parts of his address, and this is the moment for our own custom. After the State of the Union Speech, MORNING EDITION checks some of the facts the president used.

Let's start with the effort to cut back on the federal government's massive borrowing.

President BUSH: We set a goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009 and met that goal three years ahead of schedule.

(Soundbite of applause)

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Naylor covers Congress. And Brian, does that cut in the deficit include the war in Iraq, the spending for that?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Actually, Steve, it does. The war in Iraq and Afghanistan are both included in that. And actually economists say the budget would be in balance now if it weren't for the tax cuts that Congress passed at the request of the president.

INSKEEP: So when the president said that they've cut the deficit in half, he's accurate about that. What about when he made this statement?

President BUSH: In the coming weeks I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years.

INSKEEP: Brian Naylor.

NAYLOR: Well, actually, Democrats say they're going to do the same thing. But the question is whether these budgets are based on realistic expectations. The White House says that it's going to predict the war in Afghanistan and Iraq is going to be over with in two years so there wont be any war costs after fiscal year 2010.

So there's a lot of kind of unrealistic expectations that are factored into this.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Now in the State of the Union Speech, the president also praised the success of his major education law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

President BUSH: Students are performing better in reading and math. The minority students are closing the achievement gap.

INSKEEP: Let's go next to NPR's Steve Drummond who covers education. And Steve, are students performing better as the president says?

STEVE DRUMMOND: Well, Steve, some students are. The numbers the White House put out yesterday looked at fourth graders where, between 2003 and 2005, reading and math scores have increased. If you look at eighth graders though, the picture's a little bit different. Math scores are up there, but reading scores among eighth graders have declined a little bit. And the achievement gap between white students and African-Americans has widened a very small amount.

INSKEEP: We've got a selective use of statistics here?

DRUMMOND: Yes, I think so.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Steve Drummond. Now the president hit another major domestic issue when he proposed a way for Americans to afford health insurance. He proposed tax deductions to help pay the cost and said that would benefit millions of people with no insurance.

President BUSH: And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach.

NPR's Julie Rovner is with us. She covers health issues. And will this put health insurance within the reach of al Americans, or millions of Americans, as says?

JULIE ROVNER: What the president wants to do is entirely change the tax treatment of health insurance premiums. But there's a lot of question as to whether that will be enough. Low income Americans generally don't pay very much in taxes, so a tax deduction isn't really going to help them afford health insurance. As one interest group put it: It's like throwing something in a 40-foot hole a 10-foot rope.

INSKEEP: You mean low-income people who are probably the least likely to have health insurance are also the least likely to get a benefit from this tax deduction?

ROVNER: That's absolutely correct.

INSKEEP: And some people's taxes will actually go up as a result of this?

ROVNER: People with very generous coverage who are more likely to be high income but not necessarily very high income would have to pay higher taxes to give this deductions to people at the lower end of the spectrum who may or may not get enough of the tax benefit to help them afford health insurance.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks very much. That's NPR's Julie Rovner. And as we check the facts in the president's speech last night, we also ran across this claim about immigration.

President BUSH: To secure our border we're doubling the size of the Border Patrol and funding new infrastructure and technology.

INSKEEP: And let's go to NPR's Jennifer Ludden, who covers immigration issues. Jennifer, how far are along are they really with that doubling of the Border Patrol?

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Well, so far, up 63 percent since Bush took office and the number of agents is supposed to - expected to double by the time he leaves office. You know, something else, Steve, that the president mentioned is an increase in workplace enforcement. And there it really has been dramatic. There's a sevenfold increase in the number of arrests at worksites between 2002 and 2006, which really sounds amazing until you realize there are millions and millions - about 7 million - working at various companies around the country.

So good efforts here that really do amount to a drop in the bucket.

INSKEEP: All right. That's NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, thanks very much.

Now much of the speech emphasized how the administration altered its own facts, its own assumptions about the world. And that is especially true when you listen to the president's statements on fuel economy and conservation.

President BUSH: At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks and conserve up to eight and half billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017.

INSKEEP: NPR's Christopher Joyce covers energy in the environment. And Christopher, the underlying fact here or the assumption that conservation can make a big difference to the United States, is that a departure for this administration?

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It's not something that the administration has said very often. It's usually inventing our way out of our problems. It's technology, technology, building hydrogen-fueled cars, conservation efficiency. They sort of reek of sacrifice and it's not something that the Bush administration has often called for. So this is an acknowledgement that maybe there's another way to get to the goal here.

INSKEEP: Vice President Cheney said some years ago that conservation alone could not be part of a serious energy policy.

JOYCE: And I think perhaps that's beginning to change not necessarily from within but from a lot of influence without.

INSKEEP: The president also referred briefly to the serious challenges, he called it, of global climate change. Does that reflect the administration acknowledging different facts than they would have in the past on that issue?

JOYCE: It's a more of a public statement of what's been privately said in the White House, which is that climate change is something that humans are influencing, making worse, and maybe it's time to actually do something about it.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Christopher Joyce.

Now in recent months the White House has altered the facts that it acknowledges on Iraq. But in a speech last night, the president presented those facts in a careful way. He said it's only in the last year that events have begun to get significantly worse and that up until the year 2005, the war was going well.

President BUSH: A thinking enemy watched all of these things, adjusted their tactics; and in 2006, they struck back.

NPR's Tom Bowman covers the Pentagon and covers Iraq. And Tom, is this an accurate narrative to suggest that things were going in the right direction up through 2005?

TOM BOWMAN: No, it's really not. That clearly the Iraqi insurgency started romping up in the spring of 2003 and just kept going since then. And in 2006, with the bombing of the Samarra mosque there was spike in activity, and some would say the civil war actually started at that point. But to say that things were going well prior to that is really not the case at all. And the problem is that the Iraqi government has yet to reconcile with the Sunni, yet to reach out to the Sunni minority.

And they also - their security forces are not well trained, not well equipped. And that has been a problem all along.

INSKEEP: Now, Tom Bowman, we were also listening closely to the Democratic response last night to the president. It came from Senator James Webb of Virginia. Much shorter speech, so fewer facts to check, but there was this statement.

Senator JAMES WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): The majority of the nation no longer supports this war - the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military, nor does the majority of Congress.

INSKEEP: The middle item in that series raises the question of whether the military really does not support the way the war is being fought.

BOWMAN: You know, we really don't know that. And I think that's based on a poll in the Military Times, in newspapers, that was taken last month. And the poll shows a decrease in support for President Bush's handling of the war. They say that the high watermark of support was back in 2004. Two thirds of those who responded said they approved to the president's handling. They say now that's down to just over one third. But again, it's a small poll, and to say the military is not supportive is a bit of a stretch.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tom Bowman. One of many correspondents who's been helping us check the facts on the president's State of the Union speech and the Democrats' response.

And here's one other tiny item to leave you with. It came early in the president's speech. That's where President Bush made gracious remarks about the other party and spoke eloquently about Nancy Pelosi, the first woman speaker, but he added this…

President BUSH: Some in this Chamber are new to the House and the Senate, and I congratulate the Democrat majority.

INSKEEP: Note that he called it the Democrat majority, not the Democratic majority, which would be correct. Democrat Party is a form that many Republicans insist on to the annoyance of the opposition. The president's prepared remarks actually got the reference right, referring to the Democratic Party. But when he stood before Congress, the president, despite his other gestures at bipartisanship, just didn't say it that way.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And you can hear NPR analysis of key elements of the State of the Union address by going to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.