By Carole Fader jacksonville.com April 15, 2012 – 12:25am
Times-Union readers want to know:
Is it true that the national debt has increased more under President Barack Obama than all the previous 43 presidents combined?
Sarah Palin told this to Fox News last year and it has been repeated in viral emails since.
It wasn’t true when she said it in May 2011 and it still isn’t true today. But partisan comments about the debt are nothing new and, according to fact-finding organizations, there’s been a lot of “sugarcoating” going on by both parties.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, for example, said on her website in early May 2011 that the debt had increased only 16 percent since Obama took office. That number was bandied about for a while by Democrats but, despite being corrected later, it is still being used in various postings and emails.
On a Flickr page, Pelosi had listed the following debt-increase numbers for these presidents: Ronald Reagan, up 189 percent; George H.W. Bush, up 55 percent; Bill Clinton, up 37 percent; George W. Bush, up 115 percent; Obama, up 16 percent.
PolitiFact.com, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-finding project of the Tampa Bay Times, took a hard look at the chart and found that Obama’s number was based on him taking office on Jan. 20, 2010, a year later than his actual inauguration date.
Using the real time frame, PolitiFact.com found that as of May 2011, George W. Bush had an increase of $4.899 trillion, or 86 percent, not 115 percent, and debt under Obama had risen $3.661 trillion, or 34 percent — not 16 percent. Numbers for the elder Bush, Reagan and Clinton were essentially correct.
When pointed out by PolitiFact.com, Pelosi’s office acknowledged the calculation error and changed the information.
PolitiFact.com also went one step farther. It looked at the debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product because this factors out complications such as economic cycles and inflation. Using Office of Management and Budget statistics, here’s what PolitiFact found:
Reagan, up 14.9 percentage points; George H.W. Bush, up 7.1 percentage points; Clinton, down 13.4 percentage points; George W. Bush, up 5.6 percentage points; Obama, up 21.9 percentage points.
PolitiFact.com reported: “So by this measurement — potentially a more important one — Obama is the undisputed debt king of the last five presidents, rather than the guy who added a piddling amount to the debt, as Pelosi’s chart suggested.”
It also depends on what kind of debt you look at: public debt, which is debt held by the public, or gross federal debt, which combines that debt plus debt held by the government itself. The Washington Post also pointed out other ways to look at presidential debt in an article at tinyurl.com/79erqx7.
Another way of checking out the national debt is at the Treasury Department’s “debt to the penny” website at tinyurl.com/djlqmw.
That database shows that Palin’s statement about Obama’s debt increase surpassing all previous presidents combined is not factual. The nation’s total debt was $10.626 trillion on the day Obama took office and, as of Thursday, it had increased to $15.614 trillion — a rise of $4.988 trillion.
Actually, Obama’s debt-increase number overtook that of George W. Bush — which rose from $5.727 trillion to $10.626, or $4.899 trillion — last month.
So, yes, the debt increase has risen more during Obama’s almost three years and three months in office than it did during eight years of Bush’s presidency — but obviously not more than all presidents combined.
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