Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Donna Brazile and Obama approval

Meh.  They're doing it all wrong.  Fact checking, that is.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


The headline and deck make this issue appear deceptively simple.  But as PolitiFact notes from time to time, many statements come with an implicit underlying argument.  But don't expect PolitiFact to find one of those this time out.

Richert begins:
As Jan. 20, 2010, approaches, pundits and pollsters are scanning the numbers to see how President Barack Obama has done during his first year in office.

A group of news analysts discussed Obama's job approval rating Jan. 17, 2010, on ABC's This Week, and specifically focused on a new ABC-Washington Post poll conducted between Jan. 12 and 15, 2010.
Richert's presentation above is factually incorrect.  The news analysts referenced in her second paragraph were not discussing President Obama's job approval rating.  They were discussing his job performance over the course of the year.  Job approval was a small part of that overall discussion, and received focus from Donna Brazile, one may presume, simply because it offered one of the few positives from the entire set of poll numbers the panel was discussing.  Though a small uptick in the last couple of weeks after a year of fairly steady declines is a thin positive.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said that Obama is doing the best job he can given the circumstances.

"He's had to inherit two wars, he's had to work with a Congress that often tries to take the lead.  And of course he's worked against a Republican Party that was united against him and against all of his policies," she said. "Despite all of that, there's some good stuff in [the poll results]. ... Not only is his job approval up but most Americans consider him a strong leader."
(yellow highlights added)
Remember that an ellipsis indicates omitted material, not a pause by the speaker.  Contextually, however, the important omission of context was the question to which Brazile was (ahem) responding:
TAPPER: Donna, how -- how can the president -- how can majorities be disapproving of the president on two key domestic issues?

BRAZILE: Well, to be honest with you, President Obama is not only a serious president, he's also a president who must constantly multitask. In addition to having the focus on the economy, which was on the brink, and most Americans, I still believe, will give him credit if they believe that the changes that he has made will help them make ends meet.
But -- but he's had to inherit two wars. He's had to work with a Congress that often tries to take the lead, in terms of making the policy prescriptions. And, of course, he's worked against a -- a Republican Party that was united against him and against all his policies.
Despite all of that, there's some good stuff in here. I think he should open this up and say to the first lady, "Happy birthday." Not only is his job approval up, but most Americans consider him a strong leader. So there's some good stuff in here.
If one offers Brazile a hefty degree of favorable interpretation then perhaps she is obliquely answering Tapper's question.  More probably it represents diversionary spin.  Let's review the presentation of data from which the discussion proceeded (quoting Jake Tapper in each instance):
  • "Job approval. In April, 69 percent approved. Now that's down to 53 percent."
  • "Majorities disapprove of the president's handling of health care and the economy."
  • "55 percent approve of how he handled the threat of terrorism."
  • "62 percent of those polled say the country is headed in the wrong direction ..."
Tapper's numbers all came from a recent (at the time) ABC News-Washington Post poll.

He was apparently asking Brazile about the second bullet, regarding disapproval of "the president's handling of health care and the economy."  In response, Brazile entered spin mode.  PolitiFact took no note.

Brazile's comment that Obama's job approval is up piqued our interest. Could the numbers be so optimistic?
Is there something "so optimistic" about a slight uptick in approval numbers when, in context, even Brazile was obviously going for the silver lining?  Why didn't Brazile's underlying argument pique PolitiFact's interest this time?

We went back to the ABC-Washington Post poll and found that Brazile is technically correct: Obama's approval rating has increased three percentage points from 50 percent in December 2009. That was his lowest job approval rating to date, according to the same poll.

So, Brazile is correct that Obama is polling three points higher than he did in December. But the latest figure also falls within the poll's three-point margin of error; statistically speaking, not much has changed since December. (She was more accurate with her claim that "most Americans consider him a strong leader." The poll showed that overall, 63 percent of the people characterized him that way.)
OK.  Great.  Brazile is technically correct that the poll puts Obama's job approval rating three percentage points higher than the same poll placed it in December.  In terms of job performance over the past year, what is the significance?

Richert goes on to look at some presidential approval numbers from other sources before proceeding to her conclusion:
So, Brazile claimed that Obama's job approval ratings are improving, and generally speaking, it seems they are. But we're going to lower our rating by one notch because she based her claim on one poll in which the increase is within the margin of error. So we rate this one Mostly True.
In context, Brazile claimed that Obama's job approval ratings were improving according to the ABC News-Washington Post poll.  It isn't fair to fault Brazile if she fails to note other polling data unless it is relevant to Brazile's underlying argument.  On the facts, Brazile is perfectly accurate.  We might just as well fact-check Jake Tapper's statements about other findings in the ABC/WaPo poll.

This is exactly why I prefaced this post with the assertion that this fact check done the wrong way.  The facts of Brazile's statement come directly from the poll.  Fact checking her repetition of the raw data is pointless.  The part worth checking comes from the underlying argument, if any.

Was there an underlying argument, then?  Richert implicitly detected one, as revealed when she compared the poll numbers the panel was discussing with other results such as the Quinnipiac numbers.  Let's call the Qunnipiac poll the outlier and grant that the presidential approval numbers have improved slightly over the past month.  The original set of data provides one possible explanation, as respondents liked Obama's response to the Christmas Day terrorist attack.  Most likely the president's response to the crisis in Haiti figured in also, since that occurred near the start of the time frame during which the poll was performed.

Under the assumption that the president's approval numbers have recently improved, what underlying argument is Brazile most likely making?  Given the context, it has to have something to do with mitigating the appearance that the president has not performed particularly well.  The panel was assembled to assess the president's performance during his first year.  The late upward tick is only relevant with respect to the past year.  Any future trend is effectively irrelevant.  Thus, the mention of the uptick was probably an intended distraction from the overall trend of public approval.  That trend was down, as Tapper noted at the outset.

Brazile, then, was doing what we expect from partisan pundits.  She was trying to put the best face on Obama's performance over the past year while avoiding Tapper's question.  She used an obviously true fact (the ABC/WaPo poll unquestionably indicated a late rise in  presidential approval, setting margin of error aside) to support a very dubious underlying argument.

Brazile shamelessly spins.  PolitiFact implicitly approves by ignoring the true underlying argument.  Final result:  PolitiFact gets to run a header that announces presidential approval headed upward.  Donna Brazile gets a "Mostly True" for a fairly shameless case of political spin.

The grades:

Catharine Richert:  F
Greg Joyce:  F

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