State of the Union 2015 Fact Check

What the president left out on energy, Obamacare, and the economy.

Obama stands before giving his State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (National Journal)

The State of the Union is traditionally a laundry list of policy proposals long on rhetoric and short on details. And everything President Obama says is vetted to the hilt.

That said, the speech is also one of the rare moments the White House has the uninterrupted attention of the American people. That's why the White House made a big deal of releasing the prepared text to the public before the president spoke. But there's always a temptation to massage the facts, or leave some context out.

Here's our fact/spin check of the 2015 State of the Union:

Energy independence

"We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas."

According to Energy Information Administration data, the U.S. is now the largest oil and natural-gas producer in the world. Domestic oil production increased from an average of 5.2 million barrels per day in 2009 to 7.2 million barrels per day in 2013, according the Congressional Research Service. Natural-gas production jumped from 21.6 trillion cubic feet to 25.5 trillion cubic feet during the same period.

That boom, however, has taken place largely on state and private land and out of reach of the administration. And while fossil-fuel production is up overall, from 2009 to 2013, oil and natural-gas production actually decreased on federally owned tracts of land.

U.S. imports of crude oil have also fallen in recent years, declining from an average of 9.7 million barrels per day of oil imports in 2008 to 8.5 million barrels per day in 2012, according to the EIA.

But what Obama left out of his speech is that despite that decline, the U.S. remains a top consumer of foreign oil. In 2012, the latest year for which EIA had available data, the U.S. was the No. 1 oil importer in the world.


"And in the past year alone, about 10 million uninsured Americans finally gained the security of health coverage "¦ and health care inflation [is] at its lowest rate in 50 years."

We don't know for sure how many uninsured Americans have gotten coverage through the Affordable Care Act, but Obama's math is in line with estimates published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine. That analysis—which was conducted in part by Health and Human Services—estimated that 10.3 million Americans gained insurance due to Obamacare, based on the decline in the uninsured rate and 2014 census estimates.

That estimate is more generous to Obamacare than the most recent Gallup Poll, but Gallup still found the percentage of Americans without health insurance is lower than it's ever been. The polling firm said earlier this month that roughly 13 percent of Americans lack health insurance—a steep drop of more than 4 percent since Obamacare enrollment began and the law's Medicaid expansion took effect.

And health care inflation is indeed growing at historically low rates.

In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, total U.S. health care spending increased by just 3.6 percent. That's the lowest single-year increase on record, and it made 2013 the fifth straight year of historically low spending growth. Health care spending grew more slowly than the overall economy, meaning health care's share of the economy didn't get any bigger. All of this is extremely good news for the country's balance sheet.

Obamacare doesn't deserve all the credit: There's usually a period of slow growth in the few years following a recession, and experts agree that's part of the slowdown we're seeing now. But many health policy experts say Obamacare is helping—the law made a lot of direct cuts to Medicare spending, which naturally slowed spending on that program.

Job growth

"Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis."

That's true, but it's also not the whole story.

First, the good news. According to the Labor Department's nonpartisan number crunchers, the unemployment rate currently sits at 5.6 percent. That's the lowest level since June 2008—about three months before Lehman Brothers collapsed and the financial crisis went into full swing. Unemployment peaked at 10 percent in October 2009, and has been gradually falling since—in large part because the private sector is creating more jobs. After losing more than 5 million jobs during Obama's first 14 months in office, the private sector has since posted 58 straight months of job growth. And over that stretch, more than 11 million private jobs have been added. In 2014, the private sector added an average of 238,000 jobs per month.

But it's not all good news. The unemployment rate is not simply a count of everyone out of a job. Instead, it tallies the percent of people who are both out of a job and actively looking to get one. So there are two ways to leave the legion of unemployed: One can get a job, or one can quit looking all together. In June 2008, the labor force participation rate—the percentage of all U.S. civilians aged 16 and above who hold a paying job—was 66.1 percent. In December 2014, that rate sat at 62.7 percent. And if the same percentage of Americans were competing for jobs today as were in 2008, the unemployment rate would be much higher.

Obama's critics charge that the president's unemployment record is falsely inflated by these labor market departures, and some point to the growth in recipients of disability benefits and other social programs as proof that the federal government is incentivizing workers to quit. And it is a troubling trend: The labor force participation rate has been declining for at least 15 years, and as workers make up a smaller part of the population, it strains programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as there aren't enough workers to keep paying into the programs to keep up with the beneficiaries who are taking money out.

There is another wrinkle to consider, however: While individuals who quit looking for work certainly account for some portion of the drop in unemployment, not all of those individuals are victims of the bad economy. Some are people who decided to go back to school or, even better, decided they had saved enough money to retire. Indeed, as the baby boomer generation ages, it would be a sign of economic distress—not vitality—if the vast majority of them continued to look for work.