State of the Union: Truth or Dare?


In the 1981 classic movie, Absence of Malice, lead character Michael Gallagher tells reporter Meghan Carter that everything she wrote about him was accurate, but none of it was true.

I thought of that line as I watched the State of the Union speech January 24.  Everything the President said that night was accurate, but much of it wasn’t true.

That conundrum is among the principle reasons why governing has become so difficult and why Washington is so dysfunctional.

In order for opposing sides to negotiate their way to consensus, they must first agree on their facts.  They can have differing opinions on the meaning and import of those facts, but they have to get their facts straight first. Every parent knows you can’t resolve a dispute between two children until you know how it started and who id what to whom. You’ve heard it many times at the outset of political deliberation:  Let’s first determine on what we can agree before addressing that on which we differ.

President Obama in the State of the Union used a selective set of facts to create his perception of reality, and the very next day, the media, fact-checkers and his political adversaries were all over the speech offering different facts to discredit that perception.  By the end of the day, the public was no closer to understand the truth of their condition than they were before the speech.

For example, on natural gas the President said:  “And my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”

And later he said: “And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock –- reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.”

The next day, the National Journal wrote, “experts in the field say the truth is, the administration doesn’t need to do much to fuel the current natural-gas boom.  Companies are already developing domestic gas at almost unsustainable levels…”

And the research?  “Federal R&D for natural gas ended in the 1980s and 1990s, according to (Richard) Newell (Duke University professor who is former administrator of the Energy Information Administration). That’s well before the U.S. shale-gas formations were discovered starting around 2008.”

The President said “American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years, “ and that imports of foreign oil are down.  The House Resources Committee the next day reminded us that imports are down because gas prices are high and the economy is down. Federal production is actually only 19 percent of total U.S. production, down from 32 percent ten years ago.

President Obama said “over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration.”  Accurate, but Resources Chairman Do Hastings said that leasing was authorized and scheduled under the Bush Administration.

On another subject, the President said, “In fact, I’ve approved fewer regulations in the first three years of my presidency than my Republican predecessor did in his.”

Accurate.  But it isn’t the whole story, according to  President Obama issued slightly fewer regulations than George Bush and Bill Clinton, but the Obama regulations are costing the economy more, much more, issuing more regulations carrying a cost of $100 million or more than both the Bush and Clinton administrations.

The speech is replete with such examples.  He also claimed credit for “putting more boots on the ground” at the borders.  Accurate, but FactCheck recalled it was President Bush who nearly doubled the number from11,000 to 20,000.  Obama only added 1,000 more.

There are more examples on everything from Chinese tire imports to job creation, education and immigration.

The President’s speech was accurate, but none of it said much about the truth of the state of our Union. It was a skillful exercise in political spin, the manipulation of facts, not a truthful presentation of them. That spin exercise, which now permeates the public dialogue on both sides of the political fence leaves us with a sophomoric ‘he said, she said’ discourse that gets us nowhere. We are simply running in place, without progress, without hope of coming together.  And the condition is chronic and badly exacerbated by media that thrive on contrast and shun consensus.

It is one of the factors that make governing so difficult. There are a number of others, of course, ranging from the polarization of the parties and reapportionment to the lack of civil discourse, the affects of money in politics, right down to congressional rules and procedures. But the inability or the unwillingness of opposing sides to even abide by the minimalist rules of negotiation and compromise, to simply agree on the facts, is among the root causes.

Abraham Lincoln in a speech in 1854 in Peoria, IL.,  in addressing the position of his arch rival, Stephen A Douglas,  said, “If a man will stand up and assert, and repeat, and re-assert, that two plus two do not make four, I know nothing in the power of argument than can stop him.  In other words, if you can’t even agree that 2+2+4, then there is no hope for resolution of your differences.

Accurate and so true.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.