FactChecking Biden’s CNN Town Hall

By Lori Robertson, Robert Farley, D'Angelo Gore, Jessica McDonald and Lucía Osses

Posted on July 22, 2021

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In a prime-time town hall aired on CNN, President Joe Biden overstated some facts and misled on others.

  • The COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing symptomatic disease, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease. But no vaccine is 100% effective, as Biden suggested in contradictory remarks.
  • Biden also overstepped when he referenced the delta variant. It’s not yet clear whether it is “more deadly.”
  • He overstated the percentage of fully vaccinated people in the U.S. older than 50. But he was close if considering those who had received at least one shot
  • The president made a misleading claim about his administration creating more jobs to date than previous administrations. On a percentage basis, job growth was slightly higher during the same five-month period of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in 1977.
  • Biden said “the cost of an automobile is kind of back to what it was before the pandemic.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index for new and used cars in cities was up about 20% between January 2020 and June of this year, but a car price expert says that’s partly because people are buying bigger, more expensive cars.
  • Although Americans’ trust in the federal government has ticked up a bit since 2019, it’s at about the same (low) level under Biden as it was late in Donald Trump’s presidency. Biden cited the small uptick, which some may have taken to mean there has been improvement since he took office.

The town hall was broadcast on July 21 from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Vaccine Effectiveness

The COVID-19 vaccines authorized in the U.S. are highly effective in preventing symptomatic disease, hospitalizations and deaths from the disease. But no vaccine is 100% effective, as Biden suggested in the town hall and afterward in contradictory remarks.

“Ten thousand people have recently died; 9,950 of them, thereabouts, are people who hadn’t been vaccinated,” Biden said. The percentages from that example generally check out.

In a July 1 briefing, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that “preliminary data from a collection of states” since January indicated that “99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in these states have occurred in unvaccinated people.”

In a July 16 press briefing, Walensky also said, “This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” noting that “over 97% of people who are entering the hospital right now” with COVID-19 “are unvaccinated.”

The Associated Press similarly reported in late June that “nearly all” — or about 99.2% — of the people in the U.S. who died from COVID-19 in May were not vaccinated. The unvaccinated accounted for nearly 99% of the COVID-19 related hospitalizations that month, as well, the AP said.

But Biden then went on to suggest the vaccines were 100% effective in preventing hospitalizations and death, despite the figures he gave indicating there would be some, albeit few, breakthrough cases. “This is simple, basic proposition. If you’re vaccinated, you’re not going to be hospitalized, you’re not going to be in an ICU unit, and you are not going to die,” he said.

After the town hall, in speaking with reporters, Biden again echoed the words of the CDC director, saying that “this virus is only killing primarily those people who had not been vaccinated.” But later went on to say he knew of no breakthrough cases that led to hospitalization or death.

Biden was asked what he would say to Americans who were fully vaccinated but still contracted COVID-19. “There are very, very, very, very, very, very few people — number one,” Biden responded. “Those that it happened to, I don’t — it may be possible — I know of none where they’re hospitalized, in ICU, and/or passed away. So, at a minimum, I can say that even if they did contract it — which I’m sorry they did — it’s such a tiny percentage, and it is not life-threatening.”

The CDC and AP figures show that COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated individuals are a very tiny percentage of deaths from the disease. But there have been some.

Delta Variant

Biden also overstepped when he referenced the delta variant. 

“We’re not in the position where we think that any virus, including the delta virus, which is much more transmissible and more deadly in terms of unvaccinated people, the — the various shots that people are getting now cover that,” he said. “You’re OK. You’re not going to — you’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations.”

As we’ve just explained, the vaccines are not perfect, so Biden can’t guarantee that a vaccinated person won’t fall ill with COVID-19.

Against delta, the vaccines remain remarkably resilient, especially in protecting against severe disease, but there appears to be a drop-off in effectiveness against symptomatic disease — and several studies have emphasized the importance of receiving both doses of the mRNA vaccines.

Public Health England, for example, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine on July 21 that the real-world effectiveness of two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine fell from 93.7% against the alpha variant to 88.0% against delta in preventing symptomatic disease — a modest decline. But with only one dose, the effectiveness dropped more, from 47.5% to 35.6%.

In an unpublished study from Canada, researchers estimated the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine against delta to be 87% after two doses, while a report from Scotland, published in the British medical journal the Lancet, pegged the figure at 79%.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the health ministry released information on July 5 suggesting the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 64% effective against infection or symptomatic illness, but still 93% effective in preventing serious illness and hospitalization.

Biden is also on shaky ground when he says the delta variant is “more deadly.” It’s possible the variant is more dangerous than previous versions of the virus, but that’s still far from clear.

One study from Scotland, published in the Lancet in June, found the risk of hospitalization with the delta variant was almost double that of the alpha variant, but the finding was preliminary. 

In its latest assessment of the variant, posted on July 8, Public Health England stated that analyses continued to suggest an increased risk of hospitalization relative to alpha, but there was no evidence of increased severity “once in hospital” — and there was a “high level” of uncertainty about this.

The CDC, notably, does not list increased virulence as a feature of the delta variant on its website

As we and others have explained, it can be difficult to pin down whether a viral variant that is more transmissible is also inherently more dangerous, or whether its ability to sicken and kill more people is just related to its increased contagiousness or to other features, such as who is falling ill.

Certainly, delta’s easier spread is still concerning, as it can lead to more deaths in a population, but it’s premature for Biden to say the variant is “more deadly.”

Vaccinations for the Over-50 Crowd

Biden overstated the percentage of fully vaccinated individuals older than 50. But he was close if considering those who had received at least one shot, according to CDC data.

Biden said, “We’ve made sure that since I got in office, we’ve inoculated over 160 million people, 85% of people over the age of 50.”

Biden’s first comment is correct. The CDC’s COVID Data Tracker shows that nearly 162 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, as of July 21. Around 187 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

But Biden exaggerated when he followed up his figure on those fully vaccinated by saying, “85% of people over the age of 50.”

If considering only the percentage of people over 50 who have been fully vaccinated, then the president overstated the group’s vaccination rate by more than 12 percentage points. According to CDC data from July 21, 79.7 million people older than 50 have been fully vaccinated. The CDC report, which cites 2019 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, lists the total number of residents over 50 at 109.8 million individuals. That’s 72.6% of people in the age group that have been fully vaccinated.

Biden’s statement was close, however, if considering the percentage of people over 50 who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. As of July 21, 89.8 million people over 50, or 81.8% of those in the age group, had gotten at least one shot, just a few percentage points shy of the 85% value claimed by the president.

Perhaps that’s what Biden meant to say. But he used the statistic in conjunction with the figure for those who are fully vaccinated.

Another Shaky Jobs Comparison

Biden made a misleading comparison about job growth during the current and past presidential administrations.

“We’ve created more jobs in the first six months in our administration than any time in American history,” Biden said. “No president has ever, no administration has ever created as many jobs.”

While Biden referenced his first six months in office, currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics only has data for five of the six months that Biden has been in office. The data show that, from January, when Biden was sworn in, to June, total nonfarm employment increased by a little more than 3 million workers.

We assume Biden meant to compare only the first five months of his administration to the first five months of other newly elected presidents. That would be similar to another Biden talking point that we fact-checked in May.

The more than 3 million jobs added so far under Biden is indeed the most jobs added in the same January-to-June period of any newly elected administration since 1939, which is as far back as the BLS data go. The nearly 1.8 million increase in employment during the first five months under President Jimmy Carter in 1977 is the second largest increase in that time span.

However, on a percentage basis, the growth in jobs under Carter was slightly better than the increase under Biden to date.

Since Biden has been president, total nonfarm employment went up by about 2.1% from January to June, BLS data show. Under Carter, employment grew by 2.2% during the same period in 1977. 

Comparing the percentage increase — rather than raw numbers — helps account for changes in the size of the labor force and the overall population over time.

Car Prices

Asked about rising inflation, particularly in the gas and auto industry, Biden said that “the cost of an automobile is kind of back to what it was before the pandemic.”

In fact, new and used car prices are significantly higher than they were before the pandemic.

A global shortage of microchips has slowed manufacturers’ production of cars, driving up prices of new cars. And that, in turn, has led to escalating used car prices as well.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index for new and used cars in cities was up about 20% between January 2020 (pre-pandemic) and June of this year. The CPI for used cars and trucks, alone, for urban buyers was up nearly 43% between January 2020 and June of this year.

According to Edmunds.com, an auto sales data provider, the average transaction price for new vehicles reached $40,827 in the second quarter of this year, up about 5.8% since March 2020. The bump in average used car prices is even higher, rising about 25% over the same period to $25,410 in the second quarter. Even high-mileage cars (between 100,000 and 110,000 miles) are fetching record amounts, Edmunds reports.

“Tighter inventory and fewer discounts in the new car market are pushing shoppers to seek a reprieve in the used market, and this consumer behavior is what’s also driving used car prices to astronomical levels,” said Jessica Caldwell, Edmunds’ executive director of insights, in a press release. “Car shoppers are used to getting deals, and often far below the sticker price for new, so anyone returning to the car market for the first time in a while is in for some serious sticker shock.”

But Talia James-Armand, a spokesperson for Edmunds, said those average prices are a bit deceptive.

“Average transaction prices are really high right now because people are opting to buy bigger, more expensive vehicles,” James-Armand told us in a phone interview. “They are opting to buy optioned-out trucks and SUVs instead of more affordable sedans. That’s what is kind of inflating prices right now.”

Trust in Government

The public’s trust in the federal government is at about the same low level in the early months of Biden’s presidency as it was in the last year under then-President Donald Trump, with more Democrats and fewer Republicans now saying they trust the government, according to the Pew Research Center. But trust has edged up slightly, by 7 percentage points, from 2019.

Biden said that part of the reason he ran for president was to “restore faith in government” and that government trust “is coming up some” after an “incredibly low ebb.”

Biden didn’t specify over what period trust in government began to rise, but if he meant that it has risen since he took office, polls from the Pew Research Center don’t back that up.

Biden, July 21: One of the things I said when I ran for office, it is not Democrat/Republican here — it is, we’ve got to restore faith in government. We have got to get people to the point where they trust government. And I made a commitment that when I made a mistake, I’d tell you and I’ve made mistakes. And when I think I got it right, I’ll say it, but I’ll take responsibility for what I do and say.

Part of it is, generally raising confidence in elected officials, raising confidence. … You know, the criticism I got by saying, I want to unite the country. They said, he can’t unite the country. If we can’t unite the country, we can never get some of these problems solved, and that goes to trust. Why can’t you unite the country? Why isn’t there a willingness to trust? Government trust is really — was at an incredibly low ebb, it is coming up some.

According to a Pew Research Center poll on April 11, 24% of Americans said they trust the federal government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” That was also the moving average at that time as well.

Although a Pew poll on Aug. 2, 2020, found public trust in the government was 20%, the moving average was at the same 24% figure (a poll on April 12, 2020, put the figure at 27%).

That moving average of 24% is historically low, but it is trending up slightly from 17% in March 2019. The lowest moving average, 15%, came in October 2011 under then-President Barack Obama.

Pew has been keeping “trust in government” data since 1958. Back then, nearly three-quarters of Americans (73%) said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. The trust percentage has risen and fallen in the decades since, but has been stubbornly low for more than a decade.

Pew, May 17: Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles. Confidence in government recovered in the mid-1980s before falling again in the mid-1990s. But as the economy grew in the late 1990s so too did confidence in government. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but declined quickly thereafter. Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%.

Whether one has trust in the government, of course, is affected by whether the president is of the same political party. In April, 36% of Democrats (or those who “lean” Democrat) said they trusted the government, as opposed to 9% of Republicans. The roles were reversed under Trump. In August 2020, 12% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans said they trusted the government.

Black Americans’ trust in government has risen sharply with Biden in office (37% compared with 15% last year), though trust has remained the same (18%) among white Americans.

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