Chain E-Mail of Obama "Firsts" analyzed

matthew's picture

Got this note in my Facebook inbox. Tough to address so much misinformation, but I'll try. This list of "Firsts" is clearly in the league of "throw enough poo, some of it will stick", but I was asked by a friend to provide some answers, so here goes.

Quit trashing President Obama's accomplishments. He has done more than any other President before him. He has an impressive list of 34 accomplishments:
First President to apply for college aid as a foreign student, then deny he was a foreigner.

Flatly false. This claim is based upon an April Fools joke article that Birthers took seriously.

First President to have a social security number from a state he has never lived in.

Dubious, but not outright false. While "042" is typically a social security number associated with Connecticut, there are several reasons why this may have occurred, not the least of which is that the "area number" doesn't always mean what people assume it means.

First President to preside over a cut to the credit-rating of the United States.

True, but this fits into the category of "the party blaming the President is the actual party who bears the blame". S&P gave very specific reasons for the downgrade. It's important to realize who S&P blames:
"...we have changed our view of the difficulties in bridging the gulf between the political parties over fiscal policy, which makes us pessimistic about the capacity of Congress and the Administration to be able to leverage their agreement this week into a broader fiscal consolidation plan that stabilizes the government's debt dynamics any time soon.
" revenues have dropped down on the menu of policy options. "

In other words, S&P downgraded because A) Revenues dropped precipitously over the past ten years due to both tax cuts and a reduction of GDP, B) the Republicans and Democrats could not agree on fiscal policy, and C) an obstructionist Congress refused to allow a return to historical taxation rates as a possible option to make good on our debts. Blame the President if you want, but he was powerless to do anything more than make speeches while the Republicans blocked all efforts to increase revenue.


First President to violate the War Powers Act.

False. If you accept Republican Congressional framing of the issue, President Obama is the third President to violate the War Powers act. It was first violated 8 years after Congress' override of Nixon's veto by President Reagan in 1981, then again by Clinton in 1999, and finally by Obama in 2011.

That said, some -- including the Administration -- argue that Obama may have not violated the War Powers act at all. By providing exclusively logistical support in Libya beyond the 60-day limit -- no combat troops on the ground -- there have been no military casualties of the type typically seen in an armed conflict (excluding four diplomatic deaths, which are non-military). Congressional Republicans claim this argument does not pass the "small test", while Congressional Democrats tend to support it.

Barack Obama has drawn criticism for failing to involve the US Military in combat actions in Libya as a result of the September 11, 2012 attacks in Benghazi. It may be safely argued that Obama declined to involve the military in response to the attacks specifically to avoid violating the War Powers act. This creates another situation in which those crying most strongly for military involvement are simultaneously arguing against its use, as Congressional Republicans find themselves arguing both for and against military involvement in Libya.

First President to be held in contempt of court for illegally obstructing oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico .

False. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar was temporarily held in contempt for enforcing new safety standards in February 2011. As he was appointed by Obama, one might safely argue he was acting as a proxy for the President. However, the claim as it stands above is false: Barack Obama was never held in contempt.

Regardless, as of this writing, those contempt claims have been resolved.

First President to require all Americans to purchase a product from a third party

True, but with caveats. First, I assume this refers to the "individual mandate" of Obamacare. The Supreme Court has ruled the individual mandate a "tax", but the recipient of the proceeds of the tax will be a certain category of insurance provider. This tax is in lieu of the "single payer" taxation system which could not pass Congress due to opposition from Republicans and moderate Democrats.

First President to spend a trillion dollars on 'shovel-ready' jobs when there was no such thing as 'shovel-ready' jobs.

I have to change my rating from "True with Caveats" to "Mixed" in order to cover the complexity of the answer.

Tautology: Considering that the neologism "shovel-ready" did not exist until the Obama administration, it is impossible for previous presidents to have spent money on projects which used the term. It is a false statement that the President spent a trillion dollars on "shovel-ready jobs"; the Stimulus was $787 Billion and included a wide variety of monies allocated for various economic stimuli, not just "shovel-ready jobs". It is a true statement that the funds for "shovel-ready jobs" in many areas -- including $50 Billion for transportation -- in fact require further planning and allocation of resources before shovels can be used, and were not within 2-3 months of being ready for shovels at the time of the allocation of money for them.

First President to abrogate bankruptcy law to turn over control of companies to his union supporters.

Misleading. As part of GMs bankruptcy proceedings, the deal required that to qualify for a $50Bn restructuring loan GM favor obligations to employees -- including wages, pensions, and benefits -- over obligations to other creditors.

What's interesting is as of this writing, a search for "abrogate bankruptcy law" only turns up results involving this laundry-list of ostensible offensive "firsts". Abrogate means "to repeal", and the President did no such thing. He stipulated lender conditions for a loan which required favoring middle-class employees over institutional lenders. This requirement was accepted by GM and its creditors, though it may be safely argued that the US Government had GM over a barrel by this point: the creditors would have received virtually nothing without the restructuring loan, and this way received something rather than nothing. The complaint is from those creditors who would have preferred the restructuring loan favor their interests first over those of the employees.

First President to by-pass Congress and implement the Dream Act through executive fiat.

Two statuses: Tautology, and False. The DREAM Act did not exist in a form likely to be ratified under George W. Bush, and did not exist under any president prior to that. The Obama administration has announced that for the remainder of Obama's term, it will not deport illegal immigrants who meet the criteria to remain in the USA as specified in the DREAM act. Presidential authority to enforce existing laws in ways that meet the administration's goals has a long history dating back to George Washington's decisions regarding the US position in the French Revolutionary Wars. In this case, no provision of the DREAM act is being implemented; the Obama administration is suspending some deportation temporarily based on the assumption that this Republican-sponsored bill with broad support will be passed.

First President to order a secret amnesty program that stopped the deportation of illegal immigrants across the U.S., including those with criminal convictions.

False. The temporary deportation suspension is not secret, not amnesty, and doesn't apply to those convicted of felonies. However, since the act of illegal immigration is itself a crime, refusing to deport an illegal immigrant is, by definition, refusing to deport someone who has committed a crime. Therefore, it is true Obama stopped deportation of criminals if their sole crime is that of having migrated to the USA without going through official channels.

First President to demand a company hand-over $20 billion to one of his political appointees.

False. In response to encouragement from the administration, BP created a $20Bn fund to handle claims related to its Deepwater Horizon spill, which created a massive environmental and economic hardship in the Gulf region. To date, billions of dollars of the fund have been distributed to claimants under a variety of circumstances to repay damages to US citizens and corporations directly injured by their oil spill. Early complaints that BP was not administering the fund fairly -- distributing only $375M of the $20,000M -- resulted in BP handing over administration to an independent third-party administrator, Kenneth Feinberg. Feinberg was made famous for his even-handed handling of claims under the Bush administration when he was appointed by the Attorney General to handle claims related to September 11.

First President to tell a CEO of a major corporation (Chrysler) to resign.

False. As part of a taxpayer-funded restructuring loan, the Obama administration required new leadership at Chrysler. This requirement was not put in place for Bush's earlier TARP bailout of the company. However, this is not the first time the government has forced management changes as part of restructuring loans and government takeover of failing or monopolistic institutions. Demands for management changes -- particularly for monopolistic industries -- date from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

First President to terminate America 's ability to put a man in space.

False. Obama scrapped Bush's political-ploy "put a man back on the moon by 2020" plan in favor of broader manned spaceflight goals including much deeper space and targets further away -- and more rewarding -- than our Moon. However, he did eliminate the Space Shuttle program at over $1Bn per launch, resulting in large cost savings for the nation and opening up funds to be used in other areas of exploration than low-orbit maintenance flights.

Since May 1, 1961, there have been gaps as long as seven years in which the United States did not accomplish any manned space flights. As of this writing, the final Space Shuttle landed July 21, 2011, resulting in a gap of manned space flight of 16 months to the present. Currently the USA is partially funding the private-sector CCDev program for manned spaceflight, and continues pursuing public/private joint ventures for manned spaceflight in the American research paradigm which has become a model for the world: public funding for private ventures with healthy competition in the industry, resulting in consistent innovation and exploration.

First President to cancel the National Day of Prayer and to say that America is no longer a Christian nation.

The prayer claim is utterly, irrefutably false. Barack Obama has never canceled the National Day of Prayer. However, he has not required White House staffers join him in observing it as some previous Presidents have.

I also rate the second claim "false" for getting both the quote and the spirit of the quote wrong. In 2006, Obama was quoted saying the USA is not "just" a Christian nation. In this regard, he is factually correct. This USA is, broadly, 76% "Christian" as of 2008, with the rest divided over various religions and a substantial 12%-15% with no affiliation and none desired. The context of that quote dealt with ensuring minority religious populations are not ignored by a tyranny of the majority.

First President to have a law signed by an auto-pen without being present.

This is true. The author, however, appears to be suggesting that Obama is approving bills without reading them or is signing everything. This story, however, doesn't mean what the author appears to intend. The USA PATRIOT Act was scheduled to expire on a given day at 6AM while the President was traveling to France on a diplomatic mission. It took until 5:45 AM for both houses of Congress to approve the extension to the bill. With insufficient time to fly the bill to the President due to Congress' delay, the decision was made to use an autopen. It marked the first such use in history. Were it not for this technology, the bill would have expired completely, the laws would have to have been drawn anew, and a great deal of counter-terrorism funding would have evaporated in the interim which would endanger US lives.

The merits of the USA PATRIOT act are debatable. I personally disagree with his decision to sign the extension of the Act, particularly with so little time to read it. It is regrettable legacy legislation that should be allowed to die on its own, and only certain provisions kept.

First President to arbitrarily declare an existing law unconstitutional and refuse to enforce it.

False. Presidents have been refusing to enforce laws they consider unconstitutional since George Washington. In fact, refusing to enforce unconstitutional laws is considered by many to be a key function of the Presidency, as a check and balance against Congressional over-reaching.

First President to threaten insurance companies if they publicly spoke-out on the reasons for their rate increases.

False, but concerning. In the wake of the passage of Obamacare, numerous health insurance companies began immediately raising rates -- without market justification -- and blaming yet-to-be-enacted legislation for the increase in costs. Health & Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius sent out a letter instructing insurance companies not to unjustifiably raise costs in advance of planned changes to health care law changes, or they would face penalties. On the one hand, notifications against price-gouging and inducements to panic in monopoly or near-monopoly industries have a very long history in the Executive branch. On the other, threatening retribution against speech is not acceptable.

First President to tell a major manufacturing company in which state it is allowed to locate a factory.

Mixed. This appears to be in reference to Boeing's location of a new manufacturing facility in South Carolina -- a so-called "Right To Work" or anti-Union state -- instead of the Seattle, Washington area. The National Labor Relations Board filed a ten-page complaint against Boeing for discriminating against union members in hiring practices and production of new designs in South Carolina.

This claim could be rated "False". Complaints like this are not unprecedented; Barack Obama is not the first President to influence the choice of location for private industry serving a public good. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was, as far as I can tell, the first to do so, dictating factory locations and output for the war effort. I'm fairly certain such oversight existed before FDR, but have not yet found documentation one way or the other.

First President to file lawsuits against the states he swore an oath to protect (AZ, WI, OH, IN).

False. First, the President also does not swear to protect the States; he swears to faithfully execute his Office, and protect and defend the Constitution. Second, the President did not file lawsuits; the Justice Department under the Attorney General did. Even if one rightly considers the Justice Department a proxy for the President, the Justice Department has since its inception in the office of Attorney General routinely files lawsuits for civil rights, ADA, foreign policy, discrimination, currency disputes, and other constitutional violations by the states, as well as lawsuits against monopolies and in favor of the rights of people of the USA against various states which sought to infringe their rights.

The US Department of Justice has been at loggerheads with states over various since the second Attorney General, William Bradford began the practice of assisting states with creation of laws consistent with Federal guidelines. In fact, Attorney General Bradford represented the United States in the very first case ever tried before the US Supreme Court, representing William West in his suit against the state of Rhode Island. The US Attorney General's office and Justice Department have a long history of defending citizens against abuses by stage legislatures, and it may be argued from the history of the inauguration of the office that one of its primary duties is to protect citizens from such statutory over-reaching.

First President to withdraw an existing coal permit that had been properly issued years ago.

Misleading. The Obama administration, indeed, has engaged in controversial revocation of permits for federal land exploitation which were disused in order to re-issue permits to those individuals or organizations which would use them. However, the purpose of those revocations is to free up permits from those interests who sat on them for decades without taking action so they can be used by interests who will exploit them sooner.

First President to actively try to bankrupt an American industry (coal).

False, but a valid concern for supporters of coal-based power. Congressional legislation and Presidential action have bankrupted industries and corporations for a very long time, from anti-trust regulations in the early twentieth century to today's stringent emissions requirements. Those who cannot compete die; those who innovate to meet tougher standards survive. That said, Obama mentioned in a 2008 interview that he desired to bankrupt those industries which could not meet reasonable emissions requirements, and has clarified but not disavowed his statement. If his "All Of The Above" energy strategy statements are to be believed, coal should be part of the energy strategy, not legislated out of existence through too-stringent emissions requirements.

First President to fire an inspector general of Ameri-Corps for catching one of his friends in a corruption case.

Was ranked False, but now Plausible. Walpin hadbeen absent from work, had informed former president George W. Bush of his desire to resign on Obama's inauguration day, was fired for reasons well-documented (including his near-total absence from duty) and was terminated by the unanimous request of the Board of Directors of AmeriCorps. However, the timing of the decision 7 months after Walpin's referral of Kevin Johnson for prosecution is reason for concern that this firing was politically-motivated, despite Walpin's poor job performance.

First President to appoint 45 czars to replace elected officials in his office.

False, but an important statistic to watch. This represents both an incorrect number and a misleading statistic. George W. Bush popularized the practice, with 49 appointed officials acting in a "czar" capacity, and Barack Obama 43. However, prior Presidents never had more than 19. This appears to be a growing trend in governance, and one that has the appearance of an extra-Constitutional appointment. It probably should be subject to either a Constitutional Amendment authorizing the practice, or treatment of Czars as cabinet-level appointments requiring approval by the Senate.

First President to surround himself with radical left wing anarchists.

Pejorative statement, subject to interpretation. Status "unknown but presumed false", as other Presidents have had advisors frequently characterized as "radical" by their opposition.

First President to golf 73 separate times in his first two and a half years in office, 102 to date.

True, but misleading. Most Americans have some sort of fitness regimen, as does President Obama. The average human being should -- according to common consensus -- get at least three hours of exercise per week. If each of those 102 trips were five hours, then Barack Obama will have exercised for approximately 510 hours over his four-year term. To be consistent with fitness goals, 624 hours of exercise would be expected of any American who wishes to maintain a minimum level of fitness over the course of four years.

Obama, of course, is no paragon of fitness virtue. Although he's given up smoking, that life-long habit may have cost him many years of taxpayer-funded future illness as a result. So although a fitness regimen is laudable, the choice of extremely low-impact sport (golf) and eyebrow-raising health choices in the past are reason enough to make anyone skeptical of the hours spent "golfing".

First President to hide his medical, educational and travel records.

Three claims, evaluated independently.
Medical: False. Many Presidents have hidden medical conditions while in office that did not render them unfit for duty.
Educational: False. Many presidents did not reveal their scholastic records, which are not "sealed" or hidden, but simply cannot be released without approval of the person who's records they are. George W. Bush's college records, for instance, were not released until they were leaked.
Travel: False. Barack Obama has extensively documented his travels in two award-winning books, his passport is a matter of public record, and since his election as Senator his travel has been extensively scrutinized.

First President to win a Nobel Peace Prize for doing NOTHING to earn it.

False. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for Obama's efforts to revitalize nuclear disarmament, among other reasons detailed on the Nobel site. Obama has, in fact, revitalized foreign relations, nuclear oversight, and reduced Russian nuclear inventories to historic new lows under the provisions of the START treaties.

However, it might be safely said that Obama was largely awarded the Peace Prize for his rhetoric in contrast to George W. Bush's pro-war stance and disregard for global reaction to widespread US military action, rather than his real accomplishments which were, at the time of the award, mostly in-progress and not yet complete.

First President to go on multiple global "apology tours" and concurrent "insult our friends" tours.

False. While President Obama has visited more foreign countries than any president in history -- largely to repair foreign relations damaged by years of neglect under his predecessor -- there were no apologies in these visits. The "apology tour" is simply an oft-repeated lie.


First President to go on 17 lavish vacations, including date nights and Wednesday evening White House parties for his friends paid for by the taxpayer.

False. While the President is always on duty, Obama's days nominally on vacation put him squarely in the middle of the road for recent Presidents: far fewer than some, slightly more than others.

"So far, President Obama has taken 61 vacation days after 31 months in office. At this point in their presidencies, George W. Bush had spent 180 days at his ranch where his staff often joined him for meetings. And Ronald Reagan had taken 112 vacation days at his ranch."

First President to have 22 personal servants (taxpayer funded) for his wife.

False. Lady Bird Johnson had 36. Laura Bush had 26. Jackie Kennedy had 40. Michelle Obama's 22 is a reasonable number in context, but it may be possible she is the only First Lady to have had exactly twenty-two assistants.

First President to keep a dog trainer on retainer for $102,000 a year at taxpayer expense.

FALSE. The now-deceased dog trainer who trained the Obamas' dog earned a TOTAL of $102,000 per year training many dogs for high-profile figures. US taxpayers DO NOT pay $102,000/year to a dog trainer. The Obama's presidential dog "Bo" -- a Portuguese Water Dog -- was a gift from Senator Kennedy shortly after Obama took office. Bo's training was not paid for from the Presidential salary.

First President to repeat the Quran and tell us the early morning call of the Azan (Islamic call to worship) is the most beautiful sound on earth.

True. But is using a civilization's holy book to persuade them to behave peacably and in cooperation with our nation wrong? This statement seems to feed into the extreme Birther "Obama is a Secret Muslim" argument which has been repeatedly debunked. On a personal note, I find it extremely concerning that in order to be considered a righteous Christian in America today, many believe one must be strongly opposed to competing belief systems.

First President to tell the military men and women that they should pay for their own private insurance because they "volunteered to go to war and knew the consequences".

False. This is yet another parody believed to be real by the gullible.

Then he was the First President to tell the members of the military that THEY were UNPATRIOTIC for balking at the last suggestion.

False. Once again, the quote is from a parody of a White House brainstorming session. No such actual quote exists from the President.

First President to side with a foreign nation over one of the American 50 states (Mexico vs. Arizona).

False. Barack Obama is not the first president to attempt to overrule a state's destructive attempt at foreign policy; foreign relations is solely the purview of the President, with ratification required by Congress. Limiting the power of individual states to enact foreign policy legislation is specifically part of the purview of the Constitution as part of the Treaty and Foreign Commerce clauses to the US Constitution.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is a living document. I'll continue updating it as I receive various arguments, particularly if I receive satisfactory contradictions to my conclusions above, or additional information allowing me to present the arguments more impartially. You can expect it to change as I refine my opinions and am exposed to new information.