Attention Nominal Comparisons of Obama National Debt Figures: Get Real

September 8, 2010

Today, the conservative blogosphere (with the help of Drudge) is busy citing a story put out by CNSNews’ Terence Jeffrey, whose headline reads: “Obama Added More to National Debt in First 19 Months Than All Presidents from Washington Through Reagan Combined, Says Gov’t Data.”

Unfortunately, this type of simplistic analysis suffers from two major problems:

(1) The implication that the entire increase in the debt since January 20, 2009 is Obama’s fault is ridiculous

(2) Budget numbers today are larger in nominal terms as a result of inflation, which means you can do this analysis for almost any modern-day president

Continuing on (2), let’s do the same type of analysis for Bush and Reagan:

In his first two years in office (2003 debt amount less 2001 debt amount), Bush increased the national debt by more than all the presidents from Washington through Carter’s 3rd year combined.

In his first two years in office (1995 debt less 1993 debt), Clinton increased the national debt by more than all the presidents from Washington through Nixon combined.

In his first two years in office (1983 debt amount less 1981 debt amount), Reagan increased the national debt by more than all the presidents from Washington through Nixon combined.

Going back to (1), was all of the run-up in the debt under Bush his fault? Absolutely not. First off, like Obama, Bush basically inherited an economy on the decline. Second, the amount added to the debt is mostly the result of business cycles anyway, which are largely beyond the control of the White House. (Insert debate over the efficacy of Keynesian policies here.)

Did Obama’s policies add to the national debt? Like Bush (tax cuts, wars and higher spending on Medicare and education), there’s no doubt the answer is yes. But even if you assume that $1 trillion was Obama’s fault (stimulus bill and other spending items such as expanded unemployment insurance), that still leaves $1.5 trillion in the past 19 months added to the debt that is not the fault of the president’s policies and is mostly driven by the macroeconomy.

(I guess if you want to put the entire blame of the current macroeconomy on Obama, you can believe so if it makes you feel good to have such twisted beliefs. But no honest assessment of blame would reach such an extreme conclusion.)


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