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  • In Pictures: Debt by President? Obama Leads the Pack

    When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D–CA) staff released a chart in May that attempted to illustrate how much past Presidents increased the national debt, it collided with a meticulous critique from Politifact that in turn led to a revised chart. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler weighed in as the original chart resurfaced recently, reporting on its methodological faults and misleading presentation. Even the revised version makes President Obama’s debt accrual appear minor compared to that of past Presidents.

    The facts show, however, that the Obama Administration is well on its way to accumulate an unprecedented mountain of debt. The chart below provides a more accurate comparison of President Obama’s debt record to that of his predecessors.

    This chart employs data for debt held by the public, as opposed to gross debt. Debt held by the public reflects how much the U.S. is borrowing from non-government sources, including global capital markets, while gross debt includes debt held by government accounts such as the Social Security Trust Fund.

    Debt and changes in debt can be measured in various ways. This chart tracks the change in debt as a share of the economy—that is, gross domestic product (GDP)—instead of as a raw percentage change. As Kessler points out, “GDP is the broadest measure of the national economy and directly indicates the nation’s ability to service its debts.” In this case, it allows for an apples-to-apples comparison of different Administrations.

    The length of time a President served also matters when assigning debt and making comparisons. This chart measures debt increases by Presidential term—i.e., four-year increments. President Reagan saw a 14.8 percent increase in the debt as a share of GDP over his eight years: 10.6 percent in his first term and 4.2 percent in his second. President Clinton enjoyed a nearly 17 percent decrease over the same number of years, first dipping 3.4 percent and then 13.4 percent in his second term when the economy was booming. George H. W. Bush’s record stands at 8.7 percent over four years.

    As a percentage of GDP, debt increased by 4.4 percent during President George W. Bush’s first term and by nearly 17 percent in his second. At first glance, he and President Obama appear neck-and-neck at 21 percent and 23 percent, respectively. But there is one catch: Obama will have served for half the time. By 2013, President Obama will have increased debt by 23 percent after just four years—more than President Bush’s total eight-year increase of 21 percent and well more than either of the two Bush terms.

    The future doesn’t look any brighter if the Obama Administration’s tax-and-spend policies remain the norm. Under these same policies, a second Obama term would see an increase of another 10 percent by 2017 for a two-term total of nearly 34 percent.

    Another important measure is the ratio of total debt to GDP, which indicates both the nation’s capacity for handling debt and whether the current fiscal path is sustainable. According to the above Budget Chart Book chart, debt is slated to reach 87 percent of GDP by 2021. The most recent Congressional Budget Office long-term budget outlook accelerates that date to 2017.

    President Obama has consistently sidestepped proposing any serious solutions to this grave problem despite several big opportunities, such as his fiscal year 2012 budget and recent deficit reduction proposal. Clearly, such a practice is unsustainable.

    Posted in Economics [slideshow_deploy]

    55 Responses to In Pictures: Debt by President? Obama Leads the Pack

    1. David says:

      What the spending chart fails to show is the President's political affiliation and the majorities in the House and the Senate. If recollection serves, spending (historically the primary driver of adding to the debt) rises most sharply when the Democrats are in charge of both the House and the Senate (i.e. in control of the purse strings).

      • surfcitysocal says:

        You're right, and it also doesn't show the tax rates as well, and how they relate to the debt and revenue stream. This chart, unfortunately, makes Clinton look like an angel.

    2. steve h says:

      Pretty amazing the massive shift from Clinton to Bush II. It's a shame we could not keep on the Clinton path.

      • John Fluhr says:

        It was'nt Clinton's path. it was the Republican Congress holding Clinton from spending. Bush had a Democrat Congress and screwed up by going along like his daddy did.

        • Jimmy says:

          He had a Republican congress for 6 of the 8 years. It was the tax increases that Clinton passed in 1993 and the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 (passed by Democrats, not one single Republican vote) that put us on the path that led to surpluses. They had to balance the budget and wouldn't have done it without the tax increases.

        • @immoderator says:

          If I recall correctly George W. Bush had a Republican majority until 2006.

          • That's correct. Notice the first term increase is only 4.4%. In the second term when the democrats took over the the house and the senate it increased to 16.6%. What do those numbers tell you?

      • Clint says:

        Well for one thing Bush was fighting a war, where as Clinton was being a baby about laughing a 29 million dollar tomahawk missile at a terrorist camp in Saudi Arabia. But before you make a stupid mistake on believing what you see. Why don't you research about the other presidents and their debt. Except FDR, he was fighting both world war 2 and great depression so can count him. But notice how the debt seems to be lower with democrats where as its higher with republicans. One thing your not seeing that its a trend, and trend that stay consisted shows that there's more to the story. Maybe the debt you see the republicans have was caused by the democrats by giving out wrong numbers or hiding info until the next president takes office. Research more before you pull shit out of your ass.

      • stephen says:

        war is expensive. I'm not a huge Ron Paul fan but Bush II is a great example of why he wants to get out of the wars.

      • sue gest says:

        He had to borrow from social security for these numbers

      • One Person says:

        I am a replublican but I would have to agree. But if you are going to compare Clinton with Bush, what would your comparison with Clinton and Obama be??

      • Bob says:

        You do realize Bush inherited a rather nasty recession from Clinton, right?

    3. For the first graphic, could you present that data as Debt Held by the Public broken down over majority control of Congress? I think you will find that most of Clinton's deficit is the work of a Republican controlled Congress, while the tail-end of Bush 2nd's debt as well as all of Obama's debt is the work of the worst Congress in the history of this nation, The Democrat controlled 2006-2010 House.

    4. steve h says:

      Also seems to be a pretty misleading chart. Can you produce something that shows the reasons and policies behind such increase in deficits? Over the next decade, don't the 2001 and 2003 Stimulus (Bush Tax Cuts), the wars, and the 2003 Medicare Rx program account for the vast majority of the current deficit and the deficit that lays ahead over the next decade? The Obama stimulus has a pretty small part of that since it was short term and did not go one for year after year – like the Bush era legislation.

      • Steve B says:

        But wasn't there a Democratic majority that could've fixed that? Seems to me they were apparently big funs of the Rx program and have mostly supported the Bush tax cuts recently….

    5. Bobbie says:

      with the increased population since the 70's of immigrants, why is there focus on increasing taxing anywhere? what percentage of immigrants are living independent and free from government interaction and subsidies? The bible does say somewhere in so many words, men who travel to reside in a country other then their native country, are to be the tax payers of that country they reside? Are Americans being taken advantage of? Are tax payers paying for IMMIGRANT cultural lifestyles? Not the role of government or tax payers to promote or provide for.

      • spnz says:

        We are all immigrants. The US is a nation of immigrants – the country was invaded, the natives slaughtered, and your family moved in… so the Bible may be correct and you should be paying the taxes. But also remember, should have no bearing on the issue since we are a nation based on the "separation of Church and State", right?

        I always marvel at Christians who point fingers at the less fortunate, struggling, hard-working "immigrants" as the problem… reminiscent of Hitler's blaming the Jews for Germany's financial crisis and we know how that worked out.

        • Guest says:

          No, I was born here. I'm not an immigrant. My parents weren't immigrants either. By your logic, every nation on earth is a nation of immigrants. This country wasn't "invaded." First of all, the Indian tribes were all separate nations. Secondly, we were invited to stay and bought land from them. Yes, we did conquer and slaughter too, but it's not all one-sided. Just because the landscape changed, it doesn't mean we're foreign.

          Immigrants are a big problem, but they aren't THE problem.

      • Tex says:

        I agree with you. I'm tired of seeing our money going to illegal immagrents like hospital bills and other Americans tax money deals.

      • Guest says:

        The Bible has no relevance in an any intelligent discussion.

    6. H Snyder says:

      This won't show up in the "Comments," but a subject as complex, broad and sweeping as the economy and the public debt growth can be obfuscated and even demagogued to suit the purposes of the speaker, and will be, especially in an election season.

    7. Tom Sullivan says:

      I'm afraid things are much worse than you might assume. Notice the title block "Change in Debt Held by the Public". It ignores the Intragovernmental Debt, or trust funds "borrowed" (embezzled) from social security, Medicare, etc. For example, Clinton's budgets never were in surplus when counting the intragovernmental debt. Today, intragovernmental debt is $4.7 trillion, and the "publicly held debt" is $10.1 trillion, for a total national debt of $14.8 trillion.

      I wish conservatives would could ALL the debt, not just "publicly held debt". Things are much worse than we assume.

      Of course, the point of the graph is to show how much Obama is predicted to borrow, an awesome amount.

    8. lights on says:

      there's nothing misleading about the chart! all considered is more than those that are constituent to the President's agenda considers when the President makes his moves!

    9. Richie says:

      The National Debt works the same way as a credit card. Who’s in office doesn’t make a bit of difference. The more you owe, the faster it grows. The common term is cumulative. The mathematical term, is “exponential”

      • gary says:

        Richie , math looks good on paper. In America we say cain't never could. This is the what every President of the United States should be thinking. Very simple logic. Richie tear up your credit cards.

    10. Glenn E. Clark says:

      If it wern't for the fact that government is doing it, this debt accumulation and propagation would be criminal activity. Wake up call, America.

    11. @corbett_wes says:

      This graph also falis to show how much of the debt was due to the wars in the Middle East and the tax cuts that were both carry overs from the Bush administration.

    12. Jay says:

      If anyone believes that Obama is solely the reason for the rising deficit in his term then he or she is a fool. You have to look at the policies of each president and whether those policies contributed to the deficit or subtracted from the defict. Yes, some Congress' were more fiscally constrained than others. And some Congress' actually created problems years later (see Repulicans in the latter years of the Clinton Administration who pushed through the repeal of Glass-Steagall and Clinton unfortunately signed as a show of bipartisanship, which of course led to the 2008 bank and economic meltdown and contributed to the recession we are in now). What a chart needs to do is account for policies, including the 2003 Medicare prescription act, the Iraq and Afghanistan war, the Bush tax cuts and the Affordable Care Act (that actually lowers the debt over the next 10 years). Then we can see which president is more fiscally responsible. Looking at recent years, it is clear to me that Obama's policies are much more responsible than George W. Bush's, despite the deficits that Obama has wracked up, which are misleading for the above reasons.

      • sue says:

        Are you by chance a democrat? Worst president ever! Destroying our military and the american spirit a;long with children and grandchildren's future. He doesn't have a clue about economics, foriegn policy or anything else. See what on the job training can get you when you hire a communist?

        • Kat says:

          Just because he makes the most logical sense doesn't mean that he is a democrat. Anyone who thinks the national debt will magically decrease in the middle of three wars and a recession needs to take a basic micro economics class. There are of course many factors that would make the debt rise. Bush Sr. should have eradicted what he called Reagan's "voodoo economics". "Wealth will trickle down" has got to be the longest running joke republicans has pulled on us. Oh and you should probably look up the definition of communist…the results may surprise you. And probably should learn spell check. Great post Jay.

        • personyoudontknow says:

          Who killed Osama? Our Obama

      • Nemos says:

        I'm new at this, but if the last Bush year included aprox 1 Trillion in Tarp, and Obama's 1st year included aprox 1 Trillion Dollars in Stimulus, why isn't Obama's 2nd and 3rd years a Trillion Dollars less than his 1st year? Where is the ending of the Iraq war savings? If the banks paid back the Tarp money with interest, where is that savings? Seems like we vote in all these "Temporary" spending increases that never go away, just get spent on something else. Thats why it's so hard to get a tax increase. It won't be used to decrease the deficit, just spent on new things. Makes it look like the Government isn't serious about balancing a budget.

    13. Dan says:

      Excellent post Jay. Also as for a Democrat dominated always running up deficits. The senate and house both were democrat during most of the late 40's all the way through to the early 70;s and you saw the largest decline in debt during that period. Doesn't fit in people's neat propaganda bubble like they think.


    15. Don't mean to beat a dead horse but this post is for the folks who continue to post an inaccurate "who increased the debt the most graph".

    16. Tevis Burke says:

      One big flaw in this chart, it works from a zero baseline rather than looking at where the debt was when the President in question entered office. When Clinton's 2nd term ended we were 16.8% in the black. This is the public surplus that Bush inherited and should have continued to manage. Instead he went on a spending spree with two unfunded wars and added two sets of tax cuts putting us 21% in the hole, when you add that to the elimination of the Clinton surplus he actually grew the public held debt by nearly 38%.

    17. Tevis Burke says:

      Maybe I am missing something here . . . but if Clinton had a budget surplus of 16.8% when he left office and Bush had a 21% deficit then shouldn't W's numbers be more like 38%.

    18. Rodney Revilla says:

      Tevis, to answer your question: the numbers on this graph represent how much the publicly held debt changed from one president to another. It is not a "zero baseline graph". Zero represents the basis for change and not the baseline for where the previous president left the debt! Are you crazy? That would mean that you thought Clinton had a 0 percent surplus and a 0 percent deficit. Just because Clinton years saw a surplus does not mean that our publicly held debt was zero; moreover, it does not mean that we were 16.8 percent wealthier than all the other countries to which we owe!

      All in all, this is simply an accurate reflection of our publicly held debt and the rises and falls of that aforementioned throughout the last thirty years.

    19. Rodney Revilla says:

      i.e. the changes here are going from one president to the next. That is all. It is rally that simple. You can really feel bitter. It is ok to backtrack.

    20. Maggie says:

      @David, spending is a driver of debt but lose of revenues due to job lose is a very large contributor to debt.

    21. stevent.222 says:

      Wanting to know if this is true?

      Debt added by the previous 43 Presidents COMBINED 1789 through 2008 – $6.3 Trillion Dollars.

      Debt added by President Obama – One Term! $6.5 Trillion Dollars.

      • buzzards27 says:

        Steve, when FY2009, bush's last budget year, the debt stood at just under $12 trillion. Not sure where you got your $6.3 trillion.

        The big unanswered question is what time period did the chart maker use, fiscal years, calendar years, or what? Seeing that the FY2009 budget was bush's last year, I'd question hanging it on Obama. I'd like to see the underlying data and how the chart maker interpreted it. Was bush credited with eight full years, if so, which ones.

      • Gwill says:

        If the Debt is at $15 trillion now and u have and it was at $12 trillion after Bush. That's simple mathematics

    22. Teresa for Facts says:

      Are you kidding? A brief look at the chart shows the obvious. George W. Bush increased the deficit by over 30%. Obama's increase is only 3%.

    23. powerwhip says:

      Interesting you chose a chart showing the percentage of GDP rather than show the dollar figure. We don't pay interest on the %, we pay interest on dollars barrowed. But hey it makes republicans look better. If you used dollars you'd see that Reagan/Bush tripled the national debt and Bush 2 doubled it.
      With your method sure Obama looks bad, the GDP is in the toilet due to the worst recession since the great depression, which started under Bush.

    24. Brian says:


      From the CONSERVATIVE Cato Institute. An insightful and fair review of Obama vs Bush. Usually 2009 debt is attributed to Obama, but in reality, it is nearly all based on the Bush budget passed in 2008. (They is criticism of Obama too–I definitely encouraged you to read this article).

      "The 2009 fiscal year began October 1, 2008, nearly four months before Obama took office. The budget for the entire fiscal year was largely set in place while Bush was in the White House."

    25. Ima Realist says:

      These figures are insanely dishonest, in part because of how they skew dollars against time. The Reagan and the two Bushes created our debt situation; before Reagan was elected, the debt wasn't even measured in Trillions. Reagan and GHW Bush quadrupled the debt and ballooned the deficit with irresponsible tax cuts and the S&L deregulation that republicans apparently didn't learn from, given they repeated it with mortgage deregulation under Bush II. Reagan and the two bushes are responsible for about 2/3 of the national debt. Adjust for inflation and it's very ugly.

      So you want to blame Obama for the debt created by the economy tanking at the end of the Bush nightmare? OK. But you;re kidding yourself. Our debt results from Republicans thinking giving more money to people with the most money is what creates jobs. And it doesn't. But creating jobs is just a guise anyway, because what they really just want is the money.

    26. Nate says:

      What the first figure showing national debt with the presidents fails to do is provide actual values for the national debt; although it says Obama is projected to increase the debt by 23.5%. I should ask myself, increase of 23.5% percent of what value?

      If we have 100$ debt and it increases by 23.5%, like in Obama's case we have 123.5$ debt
      and lets say if we had 10000$ debt and it increase by 8.7%, like in Bush's case we have 10870$ debt
      Where we find Obama spent 23.5$ and Bush spent 870$

      Percentage doesn't tell us anything in this case…….
      Bush could have been doing a lot more damage at that lower percentage…

    27. larry says:

      what the charts fail to explain is that expenses roll over from president to president, ie, two ongoing expensive wars, the tarp, less tax revenue because of the worst recession in modern history and a prior president's tax cuts. Include this with Obama's auto bailout and stimulus. just not a lot a guy could do.

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