Has Obama Accrued More Debt Than All Other Presidents Combined?

As part of my series analyzing the article suggesting that Obama has changed the economy for the worse, let’s now move on to the fourth claim: that Obama has accrued more debt than all other presidents combined.

When Obama took office January 20, 2009, the national debt was $10.626T(!). As of September 30, 2016, the national debt was estimated to be $19.4T. So it is accurate to say that, while Obama has been in office, the national debt has increased $9.2T, nearly doubling(!). By definition that isn’t as much as all previous presidents combined ($10.626T) so this claim is FALSE.

Of course, that’s a pretty goofy yardstick against which to be measuring anyway since inflation and GDP influence the relative magnitude of the debt over time and some presidents have even reduced the debt with budget surpluses. Still, it’s worthwhile to take a look at our federal debt as one indicator of our governmental spending/health. After all, $9.2T is still an epic amount of debt to accrue over 7 2/3 years.

It’s not entirely fair to chalk the entire $9.2T up to Obama, though, because each president inherits the budget of the previous president during his first 9 months in office. A fairer comparison is to look at the sum of budgetary surpluses an deficits for which the president (and Congress) have been responsible. A good summary of Obabma’s deficits pegs him as presiding over ~$7T in deficits – still a record by far  and ~2x that of his predecessor, W, who presided over ~$3T of deficits.

Since the President and Congress negotiate the budget together each year, it is perhaps even more instructive to look at the costs of a President’s specific policies. According to this quora post, Obama’s policies have cost ~$1T (The bailout and extending W’s tax cuts were his biggest ticket items.), significantly less than Bush’s ~$5T (Tax cuts and wars were his biggest ticket items.):

Rather than looking at debt in absolute $ values (which will necessarily increase with inflation), I think it’s more useful to contexualize debt as a percentage of GDP – which, alarmingly – is nearing historic (WWII) levels:

CONCLUSION: Obama has contributed to the increase in debt as a percentage of GDP – but so has Reagan, Bush-41, and Bush-43. Surprisingly, Bill Clinton is the only president to have presided over a debt that did not increase dramatically as a percentage of GDP. No matter who the next president is, he/she and Congress need rein in the budget rather than mortgaging everyone’s future to do popular things in hopes of reelection.

Published by Bryan Guido Hassin

These are the musings of a global cleantech entrepreneur. This blog began as a way to document my experience during the IMD MBA in Switzerland and now is the place where I publish eclectic thoughts on business, politics, fitness, entertainment, travel, wine, sports, and . . . whatever else is top of mind.

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