Republicans have portrayed President Barack Obama as a big spender. And though state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) doesn't politic on the federal level, he's joined the chorus blaming the president for the national debt's growth.
In a flier recently received by the AJC's PolitiFact Georgia, Rogers said, "Congress and President Obama have accumulated more debt since he took office than the total amount of debt accumulated during the first 200 years of the United States existence."
More than the first 200 years of the country? That sounds like a lot of debt. We decided to check it out.
Rogers is running against Democrat Patrick Thompson in November.
PolitiFact Georgia discussed Rogers' contention with two federal budget experts: James Horney of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, which has conservative roots.
These groups rarely agree with each other, but these experts do agree that Rogers' comparison doesn't work.
"We're not big supporters of President Obama here," Riedl said, "but I do agree that it's not a fair assessment."
First, some basics about the national debt. Basically, it's the total debt the country has accumulated over time. If a country spends $5 million more than it takes in for 20 years, its national debt is $100 million.
There are two different kinds of that debt. There's the gross national debt, which includes money the government borrows from its own pools of money like the Social Security fund. The White House estimates that debt will be about $13.8 trillion by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30.
There's also the national debt held by the public, a figures economists prefer to use.That's the amount the government borrows from individuals, banks, and state, local and foreign governments with the promise of paying them back. It will be about $9.3 trillion by the end of the fiscal year.
Economists agree that both debt figures are troubling amounts, but not just because they're such massive amounts of money. It's because the debt held by the public amounts to 63.6percent of the gross domestic product, a figure that represents the value of all goods and services produced in one year within the U.S. economy.
That's why when economists think about the size of the national debt, they typically describe it as a percentage of GDP. It tells them more about how much of a problem that debt poses. If a family owes $60,000 but earns $6 million a year, it's not in big trouble. But if it owes $60,000 and makes $60,000, it's got problems.
Rogers didn't use this widely accepted approach when he calculated how much the national debt had grown under Obama's watch. Instead, he took the gross national debt from 1989, 200 years after the federal government was formed. This amount was about $2.9 trillion, according to U.S. Treasury Department figures.
Then Rogers took the gross national debt for January 2009, when Obama came into office, which was about $10.6 trillion, and subtracted it from projected national debt for fiscal year 2010. He came up with $3 trillion, which is more than 1989's debt. (We came up with slightly more: $3.2 trillion.)
$2.9 trillion is less than $3 trillion. Therefore, Congress and President Obama have accumulated more debt since he took office than the total during the first 200 years of the United States existence.
Not really. Federal budget experts pointed out some big problems with Rogers' approach.
First is that 1989 isn't the best year for a comparison if you're trying to figure out Obama's impact on the national debt, Horney said. A lot of debt has accumulated in the generation since then, with help from both sides of the aisle.
"It's convenient to cut it off in '89 and ignore what's happened since then," Horney said.
Second is that it's not fair to compare the 1989 and 2010 debt totals. Those numbers aren't adjusted for inflation. Furthermore, the comparison doesn't take into account that our current economy is very different than it was 21 years ago. The population has grown, the importance of various industries has shifted, and overall economic conditions have changed. Back then, the economy was growing. Now, we're experiencing our worst downturn since the Great Depression.
Third is that it's not fair to blame Obama for budgets that he didn't control, Riedl said. The 2009 budget went into effect Oct. 1, 2008, almost four months before Obama took office.
The experts we consulted suggested different approaches.
By Riedl's reckoning, for 2009, you can hold Obama responsible for discretionary spending he signed off on after he took office, plus the $220 billion of the stimulus package spent that year. You can also pin the debt for fiscal year 2010 on him as well.
This comes to about $2.1 trillion, according to Riedl, which is less than the national debt's dollar amount in 1989.
Horney is reluctant to assign a hard number to Obama's debt responsibility. It can vary dramatically based upon what share of responsibility you think he has in Iraq spending, recovery measures and other budget items.
Horney has a different approach. From Jan. 16, 2009, the Friday before Obama took office, to Aug. 24, the national debt has grown by about $2.5 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. That amounts to roughly 17 percent of the country's GDP. That's far less than the debt accumulated by 1989, when the national debt amounted to 40.6percent of the country's GDP.
Conservative and liberal experts consulted by PolitiFact Georgia think Rogers took the wrong approach. Riedl called it "kind of an unfair comparison." Horney called it "misleading."
Rogers said the statement wasn't designed to be misleading. He looked up the facts to make sure they were correct.
"The statement itself, word for word, is factual," Rogers said.
While the numbers used by Rogers are generally correct, his calculation doesn't make sense. Rogers ignored critical facts about the economy and national debt that budget analysts of all stripes routinely take into account. Plus, he blamed Obama for debt he had little, if anything, to do with.
When those experts performed what they consider a more fair and accurate comparison, neither concluded that the debt Obama ran up is equal to the amount run up by this country during its first 200 years. Both came up with much lower figures.
We rate Rogers' statement Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.