It is stunning at this late date that an allegedly skeptical press is still pushing string on the theory that Obama just needs to explain himself better, but more disturbing (and emblematic) is the notion that the sitting president of the United States hasn’t himself crossed the line between fact and fiction. Perhaps that conclusion is so widespread because the fact-checking exercise itself is not primarily concerned with the exercise of power.
In December the Pulitzer Prize–winning website PolitiFact, which is run by the Tampa Bay Times, announced its list of 10 finalists for “Lie of the Year.” Perhaps sensitive to conservative criticisms over prior Lie of the Year winners (Sarah Palin in 2009 for saying that ObamaCare will create “death panels,” and anyone in 2010 who said the law amounted to a “government takeover of health care”), the fact checkers came up with an evenly split list of 10 nominees: five that were Democratic lies about Republicans, and five that were Republican lies about Democrats. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell’s assertion that “Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people” was there alongside Rush Limbaugh’s claim that ObamaCare includes “the largest tax increase in the history of the world.” And so on.
But the real problem with such lists isn’t the lack of partisan diversity; it’s the glaring lack of lies told to the public in the service of wielding government force. Only one of PolitiFact’s Top 10—Obama blaming 90 percent of the 2009−12 deficit increase on George W. Bush—involved an official lying about his own record. The rest all focused on the way that politicians (and their surrogates) characterized their competitors’ actions and words. This isn’t a check on the exercise of power; it’s a check on the exercise of rhetoric.