Fact-checking Biden’s first week in office
President Joe Biden, in his first week in office, typically stuck to vetted scripts and verified facts — a departure from his predecessor’s freewheeling and fact-free rhetorical style.
Overall, Biden used the presidential podium to promote his policy priorities. His remarks were aspirational and light on empirical assertions. Of 20 factual claims The New York Times analyzed from Jan. 20 to Jan. 26, all but three were largely if not completely accurate. One claim was an overly optimistic projection, another falsely criticized former President Donald Trump and a third, Biden corrected almost immediately.
Here’s a review.
The president got basic facts right on the toll and racial disparities of the pandemic.
Biden most often used statistics from government agencies and think tanks to emphasize the severity of the coronavirus pandemic.
His assertions that 900,000 Americans filed for unemployment the week before his inauguration, and that almost 16 million continued to claim unemployment benefits, that almost 10% of Black Americans and just over 9% of Hispanic Americans are unemployed, and that 600,000 workers in local education have lost their jobs are all backed by the latest Labor Department reports.
His claims that 1 in 7 households and more than 1 in 5 Black and Latino households “don’t have enough food to eat” come from a Census Bureau survey from December. (A day after Biden made those assertions while signing executive orders meant to promote racial equity, the Census Bureau released a more recent survey showing that the situation had improved slightly in January; 1 in 10 households and 1 in 6 Black and Latino households reported food insecurity.)
He was also right that Black and Latino Americans are dying from and being hospitalized because of the coronavirus at rates almost three times that of white Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Research from the left-leaning think tanks the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for Economic and Policy Research buttress Biden’s claims that 14 million people are behind on rent and 40% of front line workers are Black and Latino.
And it was true, as he first claimed during his inauguration, that more Americans have died from the coronavirus (406,194 on Jan. 20) than in all of World War II (405,399, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs).
He often accurately cited positive analyses of his plans, and sometimes omitted the less flattering.
When promoting his policy priorities, Biden was armed with favorable citations.
He accurately quoted Kevin Hassett, a former top economic adviser to Trump, as “absolutely” in favor of the Biden administration’s proposed $1.9 trillion fiscal rescue package.
It would lift 12 million Americans out of poverty, Biden said, referring to a study by Columbia University. And he referred to estimates from Moody’s Analytics that the package would create 7.5 million jobs this year, and that his broader economic plan would create about 18.6 million over four years if enacted in full.
Biden, unsurprisingly, did not mention other analyses of his economic plan that projected a smaller effect on employment. The research institution Oxford Economics, which is based in England, estimated that it would create 2 million more jobs in four years. Nor did the president cite Hassett’s October paper, written with another economist for the conservative Hoover Institution, estimating that it would result in 4.9 million fewer jobs over a decade.
The plan’s call for a $15 minimum wage, Biden said, would lift people out of poverty. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in 2019 that a $15 minimum wage would bring 1.3 million people above the poverty line — and also put 1.3 million people out of work.
The president also repeatedly urged masking up, twice claiming that “wearing masks from just now until April would save 50,000 lives.” That is in line with a study that found about 130,000 lives could be saved if 95% of people wore masks in the 160 days from Sept. 22, 2020, to Feb. 28, 2021, equivalent to about 52,000 lives saved in 70 days.
He strayed from the facts when selling his own policies and critiquing his predecessor.
During the 2020 Democratic primary and general election races, Biden was more prone to factual errors when speaking off the cuff, particularly in attacks on political opponents or as he defended or embellished his own record. The three inaccurate claims of his first week in office demonstrated those tendencies.
While signing an executive order on strengthening domestic manufacturing, Biden suggested Monday that his predecessor paid only lip service to supporting U.S. businesses but “didn’t take it seriously enough.”
“Under the previous administration, the federal government contracts awarded directly to foreign companies went up 30%,” Biden said.
That was false. A White House spokesman said that Biden was referring to contract obligations that rose from 2017 to 2019. But a database of government contracts shows that the value awarded to foreign companies rose from about $11.9 million in the 2017 fiscal year to about $13.2 million in the 2019 fiscal year (an increase of 11%) and to about $12.9 million in the 2020 fiscal year (an increase of about 8.4%).
Moreover, raw dollars do not take into account increased government spending or inflation. The same database shows that the share of foreign contracts actually decreased under Trump to 1.9% of all contracts in the 2020 fiscal year from about 2.3% in the 2017 fiscal year.
At that same event, Biden overhyped the effect of one of his clean energy policies when he claimed that replacing all of the cars and trucks owned by the federal government with electric vehicles would create “a million autoworker jobs in clean energy.”
It is dubious that electrifying the federal fleet of 645,000 cars and trucks would create 1 million auto jobs, even by the rosiest projections. After all, the entire auto sector employs just under 3 million people in manufacturing and dealership jobs, while 15 million to 20 million cars are sold a year.
Existing research also shows a far more moderate influence on employment than Biden claims. For example, a 2010 study estimated 1.9 million jobs created if 123 million vehicles are powered by electricity, while a 2009 paper projected 129,000 to 351,000 jobs added if two-thirds of vehicles sold by 2030 are electric.
The president also took aim at some critics of his goal to deliver 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine in 100 days.
“I found it fascinating — yesterday the press asked the question: Is, you know, 100 million enough? A week before, they were saying, ‘Biden, are you crazy? You can’t do 100 million in a hundred days,’” he said last week. “Well, we’re going to, God willing, not only do 100 million, we’re going to do more than that.”
Biden has a point that some were skeptical that the administration could meet that bench mark when he first made the pledge in early December, a few days before the Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine. Experts told The Times at the time that the goal was achievable but optimistic. Biden himself noted in late December — when the country was administering about 200,000 vaccine doses daily — that it would take the United States years to adequately vaccinate the public.
But by the week before he took office, the number of shots administered daily reached almost 1 million. That is the pace required to reach the 100 million doses goal, leading to some criticism that such a goal is now no longer ambitious enough.
The president acknowledged in remarks this past week that the 100 million number was a floor, not a ceiling.
“I’m quite confident that we will be in a position, within the next three weeks or so, to be vaccinating people at the range of a million a day or in excess of that,” he said. “I think we may be able to get that to 1.5 million a day, rather than 1 million a day. But we have to meet that goal of a million a day.”
After a reporter pointed out that the country had already crossed the threshold of 1 million, Biden readily corrected himself, using two words his predecessor virtually never uttered: “I misspoke.”
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