National Debt Under Obama

How Much Did Obama Add to the Nation's Debt?

obama rose garden
President Barack Obama speaks during the U.S. Naval Academy Graduation May 24, 2013 in Annapolis, Maryland.. Photo: Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images

Depending on who you talk to, President Obama added anywhere from $983 billion to $7.7 trillion to the national debt. Who's lying? None of them. That's because there are three ways to look at the debt added for any President. 

The first, and most common, method is to subtract simply the debt level when he took office from the current debt. The second, and more accurate, method is to add together his projected budget deficits.

 The third method is the fairest, but is also the most complicated. That's only adds to the deficits created by the President's specific initiatives. Fortunately, the Congressional Budget Office has done this for you. 

Review these three methods below, and you'll be able to win any argument made about how much President Obama has added to the national debt. 

Method 1. Debt Added Since Obama Took Office

The first, and largest, is how much debt has been added since Obama took office. On January 20, 2009, when he was sworn in, the debt was $10.626 trillion. Today it's slightly more than $19 trillion. That's why most people say Obama added nearly $9 trillion to the debt, more than any other President. For more, see Why Is the U.S. Debt So Large?

Method 2. Obama's Budget Deficits

However, it's a little misleading to hold Obama (or any other President) accountable for the deficit incurred during his first year of office.

That's because the federal budget for that fiscal year was already set by the prior Administration. President Bush's last budget (FY 2009) created a deficit of $1.16 trillion after subtracting the spending on the Economic Stimulus Act. Most of this addition to the debt occurred after the new President took office, and so should not be attributed to Obama.

  • FY 2009 - Although this was President Bush's last budget, it was implemented during Obama's first year. Congress agreed to add the first year's worth of spending from the Economic Stimulus Act to this. That $253 billion accrues to Obama.
  • FY 2010 - Obama's first budget created a $1.587 trillion deficit, the largest in history.
  • FY 2011 - It contributed $1.3 trillion to the debt.
  • 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. Thank sequestration, which forced a 10% cut in spending.
  • FY 2014 - The deficit was $485 billion.
  • FY 2015  - The deficit fell further, to $438 billion.
  • FY 2016 - The deficit is projected to be $616 billion
  • Current Budget - The deficit is projected to be $503 billion.

When the deficits from all these budgets are added together, President Obama increased the debt by $6.695 trillion. 

Method 3. How Obama's Policies Increased the Debt

Is it fair to blame any President for events over which he had no control?

During Obama's terms, there was less Federal income. That was due to lower tax receipts during the recession and the Bush tax cuts.  At the same time, the cost of Social Security, Medicare and other mandatory spending continued to increase. The War on Terror, although technically over, was still being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Therefore, the method is to measure the debt incurred by Obama's specific policies. The largest contribution was the Obama tax cuts, which were an extension of the Bush tax cuts. They added $858 billion to the debt in 2011 and 2012.

The next largest was the ARRA. It added $787 billion between 2009-2012. It cut taxes, extended unemployment benefits, and funded job-creating public works projects. Both were attempts to stimulate the economy after the 2008 financial crisis

Also, Obama increased military spending to around $800 billion a year on average. In fact, his security budget request of $895 billion in FY 2011 set a new record. Even though troops were withdrawn from Iraq in 2012, and Osama bin Laden was eliminated in 2011, Obama requested $851 billion in his FY 2013 budget. Although Obama abandoned the phrase "War on Terror," he spent $857 billion on it in Contingency funds. That's more than the $850 billion Bush spent.

What about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? It didn't add anything to the debt in Obama's first term. That's because most of its costs began in 2014, after the health insurance exchanges were set up, and coverage was extended to more low-income people. In fact, tax increases will offset costs to the tune of $104 billion between 2010-2019. For more, see Obamacare Costs.

Congress and Obama also negotiated the sequestration budget cuts. They cut the deficit a small percent. When all of these are added up, Obama's debt contribution was $983 billion between 2009-2017. (Source: WSJ, Ezra Klein, Doing the Math on Obama's Deficits, January 31, 2014) 

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