Debt Figures: How PolitiFact Got it Wrong and Nancy Pelosi Got it Right, Mostly

Recently, PolitiFact gave Nancy Pelosi's office a "pants on fire" rating for the debt numbers it released, pointing out which president raised the debt by how much. They found out that Pelosi's office had mistakenly used the national debt figure on January 20, 2010, rather than January 20, 2009 to compute both Obama's and Bush's debt numbers. So PolitiFact corrected Pelosi thusly:
January 20, 1993 (end of George H.W. Bush and beginning of Clinton): $4.188 trillion
January 19, 2001 (end of Clinton and beginning of George W. Bush): $5.728 trillion
January 20, 2009 (end of George W. Bush and beginning of Obama): $10.627 trillion
April 29, 2011 (closing date of the chart): $14.288 trillion

This allows us to determine how much the debt rose under each president:

Under Clinton: Increase of $1.54 trillion, or 37 percent
Under George W. Bush: Increase of $4.899 trillion, or 86 percent
Under Obama: Increase of $3.661 trillion, or 34 percent
At first look, their analysis seems fair enough. And so much so, Pelosi's Flickr account subsequently made a correction. But this is hardly a correct evaluation of who jacked up how much debt. First and foremost, when Barack Obama assumed office on January 20, 2009, the US was under the budget of fiscal year 2009, which started on October 1, 2008. This budget was signed into law by President Bush, not President Obama. So President Obama can hardly be held responsible for that. So the numbers we should be using are FY numbers, not January numbers. Luckily, the US Department of Treasury has data available just by that, fiscal year. Using those numbers, we have the following:

  • Debt at the beginning of George W. Bush's first fiscal year (FY 2002): $5,807 trillion
  • Debt at the end of George W. Bush's last fiscal year (FY 2009): $11,910 trillion
  • Total increase in debt because of George Bush's budgets: 105%
  • Debt at the end of FY 2010: $13.562 trillion
  • Current US debt: $14.3 trillion
  • Total increase in debt under Obama's budgets: 20%
Pelosi's original numbers were that GWB increased the debt by 115% and Obama by 16%. Pelosi's initial figures are far closer to the truth, it turns out, because her office used dates much closer to the fiscal years.

Now, yes, President Obama passed the Recovery Act, which added, above and beyond the George W. Bush budget, $200 billion to the debt in FY 2009; but George Bush's tax cuts and emergency post-9/11 authorizations also cut the Clinton surplus (remember that?) by just about that much to FY 2001, so let's call that a wash.

This of course is not the whole story either. It's not all about under which president's watch the debt increased, and by how much, although it's an easy benchmark. The actual issue is whose policies are causing the deficits and the debt. Bill Clinton and Al Gore passed a budget in their first year in office that received zero Republican vote. It is that plan that ended up wiping out the deficit and giving us four consecutive surpluses. Then Bush came in, gave massive tax cuts to the rich, exploded the size of government and defense spending, started two unpaid-for wars, and instituted a prescription drug benefit ala insurance company giveaway under Medicare Part D.

Guess who was responsible for encouraging the subprime mortgage disaster? Yup, George W. Bush. He's one that forced Frannie and Freddie to provide capital for people with bad credit histories buy "just as nice a house as anybody else."



His was the administration that left regulations of banking to bankers, and oversaw the near total breakdown of the American financial system. The catastrophe he started ultimately left America with over 8 million less jobs, severely crippled federal revenues, and a greatly increased demands for public services and insurance benefits. And it left us with little economic and moral choice but to shore up our financial system, to provide some support for the long-term unemployed, and to give the states some support so that police, firefighters and teachers did not have be laid off as severely.  That, in addition to the dumb war in Iraq, mega tax cuts for the rich and boodoggles to the oil industry and pharmaceutical company that we are still paying for, thanks in good part to Republican obstructionism in Congress.

Every measure President Obama has taken to pull us back from the brink of disaster - and yes those measures cost money - were necessitated by George W. Bush's economic and national security policies and his administration's absent economic oversight. Make no mistake: we are still paying for George Bush's policies, and we're paying for them dearly. So while we're looking at nice charts and graphs about how much the debt increased under which president, let's not mistake those for how much of the debt which president's policies are responsible for.