Fact check: Biden’s midterms message includes false and misleading claims
President Joe Biden has been back on the campaign trail, traveling in October and early November to deliver his pitch for electing Democrats in the midterm elections on Tuesday.
Biden’s pitch has included claims that are false, misleading or lacking important context. (As always, we take no position on the accuracy of his subjective arguments.) Here is a fact-check look at nine of his recent statements.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Social Security, part 1
Biden said at a Democratic fundraiser in Pennsylvania last week: “On our watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are going to get the biggest increase in their Social Security checks they’ve gotten.” He has also touted the 2023 increase in Social Security payments at other recent events.
But Biden’s boasts leave out such critical context that they are highly misleading. He hasn’t explained that the increase in Social Security payments for 2023, 8.7%, is unusually big simply because the inflation rate has been unusually big. A law passed in the 1970s says that Social Security payments must be increased by the same percentage that a certain measure of inflation has increased. It’s called a cost-of-living adjustment.
The White House deleted a Tuesday tweet that delivered an especially triumphant version of Biden’s boast, and press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre acknowledged Wednesday that the tweet was lacking “context.” You can read a more detailed fact check here.
Social Security, part 2
Biden said at a Democratic rally in Florida on Tuesday: “And on my watch, for the first time in 10 years, seniors are getting an increase in their Social Security checks.”
The claim that the 2023 increase to Social Security payments is the first in 10 years is false. In reality, there has been a cost-of-living increase every year from 2017 onward. There was also an increase every year from 2012 through 2015 before the payment level was kept flat in 2016 because of a lack of inflation.
The context around this Biden remark in Florida suggests he might have botched his repeat campaign line about Social Security payments increasing at the same time as Medicare premiums are declining. Regardless of his intentions, though, he was wrong.
A new corporate tax
Biden repeatedly suggested in speeches in October and early November that a new law he signed in August, the Inflation Reduction Act, will stop the practice of successful corporations paying no federal corporate income tax. Biden made the claim explicitly in a tweet last week: “Let me give you the facts. In 2020, 55 corporations made $40 billion. And they paid zero in federal taxes. My Inflation Reduction Act puts an end to this.”
But “puts an end to this” is an exaggeration. The Inflation Reduction Act will reduce the number of companies on the list of non-payers, but the law will not eliminate the list entirely.
That’s because the law’s new 15% alternative corporate minimum tax, on the “book income” companies report to investors, only applies to companies with at least $1 billion in average annual income. (There are lots of nuances; you can read more specifics here.) According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the think tank that in 2021 published the list of 55 large and profitable companies that avoided paying any federal income tax in their previous fiscal year, only 14 of these 55 companies reported having US pre-tax income of at least $1 billion in that year.
In other words, there will clearly still be some large and profitable corporations paying no federal income tax even after the minimum tax takes effect in 2023. The exact number is not yet known.
Matthew Gardner, a senior fellow at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, said in a Thursday email that the new tax is “an important step forward from the status quo” and that it will raise substantial revenue, but he also said: “I wouldn’t want to assert that the minimum tax will end the phenomenon of zero-tax profitable corporations. A more accurate phrasing would be to say that the minimum tax will *help* ensure that *the most profitable* corporations pay at least some federal income tax.”
The debt and the deficit
Biden said at the Tuesday rally in Florida: “Look, you know, you can hear it from Republicans, ‘My God, that big-spending Democrat Biden. Man, he’s taken us in debt.’ Well, guess what? I reduced the federal deficit this year by $1 trillion $400 billion. One trillion 400 billion dollars. The most in all American history. No one has ever reduced the debt that much. We cut the federal debt in half.”
Biden offered a similar narrative at a Thursday rally in New Mexico, this time saying, “We cut the federal debt in half. A fact.”
There are two significant problems here.
First: Biden conflated the debt and the deficit, which are two different things. It’s not true that Biden has “cut the federal debt in half”; the federal debt (total borrowing plus interest owed) has continued to riseunder Biden, exceeding $31 trillion for the first time this October. Rather, it’s the federal deficit – the annual difference between spending and revenue – that was cut in half between fiscal 2021 and fiscal 2022.
Second, it’s highly questionable how much credit Biden deserves for even the reduction in the deficit. Biden doesn’t mention that the primary reason the deficit plummeted in fiscal years 2021 and 2022 was that it had skyrocketed to a record high in 2020 because of emergency pandemic relief spending. It then fell as expected as the spending expired as planned.
Dan White, senior director of economic research at Moody’s Analytics – an economics firm whose assessments Biden has repeatedly cited during his presidency – told CNN’s Matt Egan in October: “On net, the policies of the administration have increased the deficit, not reduced it.” The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an advocacy group, says the administration’s own actions have significantly worsened the deficit picture. (David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds, told Egan that the Biden administration does deserve credit for the economic recovery that has boosted tax revenues.)
The unemployment rate
Biden said at the Florida rally on Tuesday: “Unemployment is down from 6.5 to 3.5%, the lowest in 50 years.” He said at the New Mexico rally on Thursday: “Unemployment rate is 3.5% – the lowest it’s been in 50 years.”
But Biden didn’t acknowledge that September’s 3.5% unemployment rate was actually a tie for the lowest in 50 years – a tie, specifically, with three months of Trump’s administration, in late 2019 and early 2020. Since Biden uses these campaign speeches to favorably compare his own record to Trump’s record, that omission is significant.
The unemployment rate rose to 3.7% in October; that number was revealed on Friday, after these Biden comments. The rate was 6.4% in January 2021, the month Biden took office.
Biden’s student debt policy
During an on-camera discussion conducted by progressive organization NowThis News and published online in late October, Biden told young activists that they “probably are aware, I just signed a law” on student debt forgiveness that is being challenged by Republicans. He added: “It’s passed. I got it passed by a vote or two, and it’s in effect.”
Biden’s claims are false.
He created his student debt forgiveness initiative through executive action, not through legislation, so he didn’t sign a law and didn’t get it passed by any margin. Since Republicans opposed to the initiative, including those challenging the initiative in court, have called it unlawful precisely because it wasn’t passed by Congress, the distinction between a law and an executive action is a highly pertinent fact here.
A White House official told CNN that Biden was referring to the Inflation Reduction Act, the law narrowly passed by the Senate in August; the official said the Inflation Reduction Act created “room for other crucial programs” by bringing down the deficit. But Biden certainly did not make it clear that he was talking about anything other than the student debt initiative.
Biden correctly noted on various occasions in October that gas prices have declined substantially since their June 2022 peak – though, as always, it’s important to note that presidents have a limited impact on gas prices. But in an economic speech in New York last week, Biden said, “Today, the most common price of gas in America is $3.39 – down from over $5 when I took office.”
Biden’s claim that the most common gas price when he took office was more than $5 is not even close to accurate. The most common price for a gallon of regular gas on the day he was inaugurated, January 20, 2021, was $2.39, according to data provided to CNN by Patrick De Haan, head of petroleum analysis at GasBuddy. In other words, Biden made it sound like gas prices had fallen significantly during his presidency when they had actually increased significantly.
In other recent remarks, Biden has discussed the state of gas prices in relation to the summer peak of more than $5 per gallon, not in relation to when he took office. Regardless, the comment last week was the second this fall in which Biden inaccurately described the price of gas – both times in a way that made it sound more impressive.
You can read a longer fact check here.
Biden and Xi
Biden has revived a claim that was debunked more than 20 months ago by The Washington Post and then CNN. At least twice in October, he boasted that he traveled 17,000 miles with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“I’ve spent more time with Xi Jinping of China than any world leader has, when I was Vice President all the way through to now. Over 78 hours with him alone. Eight – nine of those hours on the phone and the others in person, traveling 17,000 miles with him around the world, in China and the United States,” he told a Democratic gathering in Oregon in mid-October.
Biden made the number even bigger during a speech on student debt in New Mexico on Thursday, saying, “I traveled 17-, 18,000 miles with him.”
The claim is false. Biden has not traveled anywhere close to 17,000 miles with Xi, though they have indeed spent lots of time together. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler noted in 2021 that the two men often did not even travel parallel routes to their gatherings, let alone physically travel together. The only apparent way to get Biden’s mileage past 17,000, Kessler found, is to add the length of his flight journeys between Washington and Beijing, during which, obviously, Xi was not with him.
A White House official told CNN in early 2021 that Biden was adding up his “total travel back and forth” for meetings with Xi. But that is very different than traveling “with” Xi as Biden keeps saying, especially in the context of a boast about how well he knows Xi – and Biden has had more than enough time to make his language more precise.
The Trump tax cuts
Biden claimed at the Thursday rally in New Mexico that under Trump, Republicans passed a $2 trillion tax cut that “affected only the top 1% of the American public.”
Biden correctly said in various October remarks that the Trump tax cut law was particularly beneficial to the wealthy, but he went too far here. It’s not true that the Trump policy “only” affected the top 1%.
The Tax Policy Center think tank found in early 2018 that Trump’s law “will reduce individual income taxes on average for all income groups and in all states.” The think tank estimated that “between 60 and 76 percent of taxpayers in every state will receive a tax cut.” And in April 2019, tax-preparation company H&R Block said two-thirds of its returning customers had indeed paid less in tax that year than they did the year prior, The New York Times reported in an article headlined “Face It: You (Probably) Got a Tax Cut.”
The Tax Policy Center did find in early 2018 that people at the top would get by far the biggest benefits from Trump’s law. Specifically, the think tank found that the top 1% of earners would get an average 3.4% increase in after-tax 2018 income – versus an average 1.6% income increase for people in the middle quintile, an average 1.2% income increase for people in the quintile below that and just an average 0.4% income increase for people in the lowest quintile. The think tank also found that the top 1% of earners would get more than 20% of the income benefits from the law, a bigger share than the bottom 60% of earners combined.
The distribution could get even more skewed after 2025, when the law’s individual tax cuts will expire if not extended by Congress and the president. If there is no extension – and, therefore, the law’s permanent corporate tax cut remains in place without the individual tax cuts – the Tax Policy Center has estimated that, in 2027, the top 1% will get 83% of the benefits from the law.
But that’s a possibility about the future. Biden claimed, in the past tense, that the law “affected” only the top 1%. That’s inaccurate.
This wasn’t the first time Biden overstated his point about the Trump tax cuts. The Washington Post fact-checked him in 2019, for example, when he claimed “all of it” went to the ultra-rich and corporations.