Proving PolitiFact Lies
Politifact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for their coverage of the 2008 election. The site is often referenced by political pundits on both sides of the aisle as proof that certain claims made by politicians are true or false. It is well respected and considered an impartial arbiter by numerous other websites.
Unfortunately, it is also riddled with obfuscation intended to convince the readers of things that simply are not true. This is especially noticable when the site addresses President Obama as his campaign promises are twisted, misinterpreted, in some cases simply omitted, and in others padded to give the illusion that the President has fulfilled a large number of his campaign promises. To illustrate this, we will use the site's rating of President Obama's record on Iraq.
Before going into specifics on Iraq, let's look at the overall numbers: the site is tracking roughly 508 promises from President Obama. Of those promises 83 are considered broken while 190 are considered kept and 72 are considered compromised. Those numbers are pretty impressive as it seems that the President was able to keep almost 2/5 of his promises in his first term.
However, we can point to numerous instances where these "kept promises" are less than 100% truthful. Part of the problem lies in judging pledges that are themselves relative. How does one address a pledge to give an issue top priority? When do you assert that a politician has put forth enough effort, but that his opponents are stalling the issue? When is a compromise a compromise and not a broken promise? This is the problem with Politifact and all the similar sights, in the end you are left with the political leanings of the site owners to judge subjective items. We will show that the viewpoints of Politifact are skewed to benefit President Obama.
First, consider the promise kept to kill Osama Bin Laden. At no point did Senator or President Obama pledge to kill Osama bin Laden. The pledge appears nowhere in his literature and the pledge was not made during the debates. After all, no President could reasonable promise that he would kill Osama Bin Laden, and the promise to kill someone rather than bring him to justice is not one that this President in particular would have made before the election. If you read the actual text of the writeup, this is clear. The only promise made by Senator Obama was that if there was actionable intelligence that Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan and the Pakistanis would not act on it, he would. This is a tactic used often at Politifact - the promise is tweaked to match a benefit. In this case, President Obama killed Osama Bin Laden and Politifact needed a promise to highlight this achievement, so it created one.
Another commonly used tactic is to bad the stats. For instance, does anyone care that President Obama pledged to his children to get them a puppy? Yet there it is, listed as a promise kept.
We could spend all day addressing the tactics used to make one candidate or politician look better or worse, but it is easier to focus on one subject to see how Politifact works is magic. We chose to look at President Obama's record on Iraq.
Politifact lists seven promises made by President Obama concerning Iraq. Of those, 4 are listed as kept, 1 is stalled, 1 resulted in a compromise, and 1 was listed as a broken promise.
Stalled, Compromised, and Broken
Of the three promises not listed as fulfilled, the compromised pledge was to launch a "robust" diplomatic effort with Iraq and it's neighbors, the stalled promise was to obtain $2 billion in funding for Iraqi refugees, and the broken pledge was to form international groups to help those refugees. These pledges highlight some of the problems we spoke about earlier with the Politifact system. How does one address the phrase "robust" and deem if fulfilled or broken. How much effort must a politician put into obtaining refugee funds or building coalitions before it is judged as "stalled" instead of "broken?" These are metrics that can never be fully quantified and therefore we are left with only Politifact's good name to trust these conclusions.
One of the promises kept by President Obama was the pledge to end supplemental funding and keep all funding items for wars on the budget. While I would agree with their conclusion that this pledge was kept, even politifact themselves notes that President Obama signed a supplemental bill in 2009. However, given that the 2008 budget was already signed, a supplemental was the only way to acquire more funds.
Ending the War and Permanent Bases
This leaves three promises that Politifact lists as kept. These promises include one to "Direct military leaders to end war in Iraq," one to "Begin removing combat brigades from Iraq," and one to ensure that there were "No permanent bases in Iraq." It is in these promises that Politifact lists as fulfilled that we can see the most purposeful manipulation of data with the intent to mislead readers.
The pledge to direct military leaders to end the war in Iraq and begin moving combat brigades home are linked. When Senator Obama was campaigning for President, his campaign literature asserted that he would direct military leaders to end the war. He also stated that he would withdraw troops from Iraq at a rate of 1-2 brigades per month and have all troops out of Iraq within 16 months. This was not a one time statement, but rather a repeated and documented promise that was included in his "Blueprint for Iraq" and on his campaign website. Politifact's writeup on this pledge asserts that Senator Obama promised to "end the war" within 16 months. This is a lie. The clear and repeated pledge was to remove all troops within 16 months.
Our writeup on Barack Obama and Iraq shows these pledges, the blueprint, speeches, and debates where this plan is clearly laid out for the American people. It also shows the timeline for troops leaving Iraq compared to President Obama's pledged timeline. The President did not assert that he would "end the war" in 16 months, but rather that he would remove all troops by this date. Politifact merely altered the pledge to one that would allow it to be beneficial for the President and then judged it as fulfilled.
On the second matter, of telling his generals to end the war, a similar tactic is used. As we noted, what Senator Obama actually pledged was to end the war and remove all troops within 16 months. After all, directing the generals to end the war is meaningless if no deadline or objective is set and the troops remain within Iraq indefinitely under the guise of the war being over.
In late 2008, President Bush negotiated a Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq to remove all troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. While most senior military and political leaders expected Iraq to renegotiate that deal, the Iraqis never agreed to do that and asked the US to stick to those time tables. This is a pivotal point in addressing the falacies within the Politifact assertions.
President Obama stopped withdrawing troops from Iraq in September of 2010. He left troop levels at 50,000 with the intention of renegotiating the SOFA and keeping those soldiers in Iraq. The Iraqis would not agree to any new terms and this is what forced the final troops out of Iraq, not his pledge to prevent any permanent bases.
So, in the end, Politifact judged President Obama as fulfulling a pledge not to maintain permanent bases in Iraq even though he made every effort to do so. It altered a pledge to remove all troops within 16 months to make it appear that he pledged to "end the war" within 16 months - an outright lie. And it judged a promise fulfilled to tell his commanders to "end the war" even though the actual promise was to remove all troops within 16 months.