National Debt Under Obama

Three Methods to Determine How Much Obama Added to the Debt

President Barack Obama speaking at an event backed by a large American flag
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The U.S. Army / Flickr.com / CC BY 2.0

Depending on who you ask, President Barack Obama added anywhere from $2.8 trillion to $9 trillion to the national debt. With such a big gap, you might be wondering who's lying. None of them, because there are three ways to look at the debt added by any president.

The first and most common method is to subtract the debt level when Obama took office from the debt level when he left. The second and more accurate method is to add together Obama’s projected budget deficits. The third method is the fairest but also the most complicated. It adds just the deficits created by the president's specific initiatives.

Let's take a look at each method and see what they tell us about the deficits President Obama added to the nation's debt.

Method 1: Debt Added Since Obama Took Office

The largest number comes from calculating how much the debt increased during Obama's two terms. When Obama was sworn in on Jan. 20, 2009, the debt was $10.626 trillion. When he left office on Jan. 20, 2017, it was $19.947 trillion. It explains why some would say Obama added $9 trillion to the debt—more than any other president.

Method 2: Obama's Budget Deficits

The second method is to add up all of the budget deficits incurred while Obama was in office. You shouldn’t hold any president accountable for the deficit incurred during the first year. Most of that deficit belongs to the previous president since he created the federal budget for that year. 

President George W. Bush's last budget—for Fiscal Year (FY) 2009—created a deficit of $1.4 trillion. That fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2008, and continued until Sept. 30, 2009. Although most of that deficit occurred after Obama took office, it was a result of Bush's budget. Similarly, the first deficit that occurred after President Donald Trump took office was due to Obama's last budget.

Here are Obama’s deficits by year. They total $6.79 trillion.

FY 2009: Congress added $253 billion from Obama's Economic Stimulus Act to Bush’s last budget after Obama took office. This emergency funding was to stop the Great Recession. That $253 billion accrues to Obama, not Bush. Once the $253 billion is subtracted from the FY 2009 deficit, it means Bush’s true budget deficit was $1.16 trillion.

  • FY 2010: Obama's first budget created a $1.294 trillion deficit.
  • FY 2011: This budget deficit was $1.300 trillion. Defense spending hit $854.5 billion. 
  • FY 2012: The deficit was $1.087 trillion. 
  • FY 2013: This was the first Obama budget where the deficit, $679 billion, was less than $1 trillion. Sequestration forced a 10% cut in spending.
  • FY 2014: The deficit was $485 billion. Tax revenue rose to $3.02 trillion.
  • FY 2015: The deficit fell further to $438 billion.
  • FY 2016: The deficit rose to $585 billion. Congress had added $58.6 billion to pay for the war in Afghanistan.
  • FY 2017: The deficit was $665 billion. It was $162 billion more than the $503 billion deficit estimated in Obama's budget request.

Like most presidents, Obama's contribution to the debt was higher. There's a difference between the deficit and the debt. All presidents can reduce the appearance of the deficit by borrowing from federal retirement funds.

For example, the Social Security Trust Fund has run a surplus since 1987. There have been more working people contributing to the fund via payroll taxes than retired people withdrawing benefits from it. This fund invests its surplus in U.S. Treasury notes. The president can reduce the deficit by spending these funds instead of issuing new Treasurys. As a result, Obama added a total of $8.588 trillion to the debt.

Method 3: How Obama's Policies Increased the Debt

How Did Obama Increase the National Debt?
The Balance

The fairest method is to measure the debt incurred by Obama's specific policies. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has done that for many of them.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) contributed $830 billion between 2009 and 2019. More than 90% of its budget impact occurred by the end of 2012. It cut taxes, extended unemployment benefits, and funded job-creating public works projects. Like the tax cuts, the ARRA stimulated the economy after the 2008 financial crisis.

Obama's largest contribution to the debt was the Obama tax cuts, an extension of the Bush tax cuts. They added $858 billion to the debt in 2011 and 2012.

Obama also increased military spending. The highest level of spending occurred in 2011. The $854.5 billion spent included:

  • Department of Defense base budget: $528.3 billion
  • Spending by defense-related agencies: $166.7 billion
  • Homeland Security: $41.9 billion
  • Veterans Affairs: $56.4 billion
  • State: $50.1 billion
  • FBI and Cybersecurity: $7.8 billion
  • National Nuclear Security Administration: $10.5 billion
  • Overseas Contingency Operations for DoD and defense-related agencies: $159.5 billion

Using this same methodology, Obama’s total defense spending was $6.3 trillion:

  • 2010: $857.7 billion
  • 2011: $854.5 billion
  • 2012: $816.3 billion 
  • 2013: $746.1 billion 
  • 2014: $753.3 billion 
  • 2015: $735.4 billion 
  • 2016: $767.2 billion 
  • 2017: $773.5 billion 

As a result, Obama’s policy of increased defense spending added $1.3 trillion to the debt over the baseline established by Bush.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act added to the debt after 2014. That’s when the health insurance exchanges opened, and coverage was extended to more low-income people. Obamacare's tax increases offset these costs by $143 billion between 2010 and 2019. 

When all of this is added up, Obama and his policies increased the national debt by $2.8 trillion.

The Bottom Line

Depending on the method you use, Obama contributed between $2.8 trillion and $9 trillion to the overall U.S. national debt. While that’s a large amount, it’s worth comparing to the national debt added by every other president. That's the best way to understand why the U.S. debt is so big.

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Article Sources

  1. TreasuryDirect. "The Daily History of the Debt Results," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.

  2. Congressional Budget Office. "Budget and Economic Data, Historical Budget Data," Download “Jan 2019.” Use Tab “Rev, Outlays, Surplus, Debt,” Column “Deficit or Surplus Total,” Accessed Jan. 1, 2020.

  3. Obama White House. "FY 2011 Budget," Table S-10." Column "2009 Actual, ARRA," Row "Non-Security Agencies," The FY 2011 budget shows actual spending for FY 2009. Accessed Jan. 1, 2020.

  4. Bureau of the Fiscal Service. "The Government's Financial Position and Condition," Table 1. Accessed Oct. 1, 2019.

  5. Obama White House. "FY 2017 Budget," Table S-1.  Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  6. Social Security Administration. "Financial Data For The Social Security Trust Funds," Accessed Oct. 1, 2019

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  9. Obama White House. "FY 2013 Budget," Page 140. The FBI includes Cybersecurity, and is part of the Department of Justice. This shows the actual spending for FY 2011. Accessed Jan. 1, 2010.

  10. Obama White House. "FY 2013 Budget.," Page 140. The FBI includes Cybersecurity, and is part of the Department of Justice. This shows the actual spending for FY 2011. Accessed Jan. 1, 2010.

  11. Obama White House. "FY 2012 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," FBI is on page 108. This shows the actual spending for FY 2010. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  12. Obama White House. "FY 2013 Budget. Table S-12. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the actual spending for FY 2011. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  13. Federal Bureau of Investigation. "FY 2013 Budget Request at a Glance," FY 2012 Enacted. Accessed Jan. 1, 2020.

  14. Obama White House. "FY 2014 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the actual spending for FY 2012. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  15. Federal Bureau of Investigations. "Testimony," Accessed Jan 1, 2020.

  16. Obama White House. "FY 2015 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the actual spending for FY 2013. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  17. Spending for FBI is Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Testimony," Accessed Jan. 2, 2020.

  18. Obama White House. "FY 2016 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the actual spending for FY 2014. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  19. Spending for FBI is Federal Bureau of Investigation. "FY 2017 Budget Request at a Glance," Accessed Jan. 2, 2020.

  20. Obama White House. "FY 2017 Budget. Table S-10. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the actual spending for FY 2015. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  21. FBI is from Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Budget Request at a Glance," Accessed Jan. 2, 2020.

  22. Obama White House. "FY 2017 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," This shows the Congressional Allocation for FY 2016. (Unlike prior budgets, the FY 2018 budget does not show actuals for FY 2016.) Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

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  24. Obama White House. "FY 2017 Budget. Table S-11. Funding for Discretionary Programs by Agency," Trump added to Obama's last budget, so Obama's budget request is used instead. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  25. Congressional Budget Office. "Manager's Amendment to Reconciliation Proposal," Page 2. Accessed Dec. 26, 2019.

  26. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis for the Washington Post. "Doing the Math on Obama's Deficits," Accessed Nov. 26, 2019.