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In a spirited and unscripted debate with the House GOP, President Barack Obama said Republicans were wrong to portray him as running up large deficits.
Speaking at a retreat for House Republicans in Baltimore on Jan. 29, 2010, Obama was particularly critical of a question from Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas. Hensarling asked Obama, "You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy?"
"The fact of the matter is," Obama replied, "is that when we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion -- $1.3 trillion. So when you say that suddenly I've got a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true. And what is true is that we came in already with a $1.3 trillion deficit before I had passed any law. What is true is, we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade."
We checked Hensarling's claim in a separate item. Here, we'll look at Obama's claim that he came into office with a $1.3 trillion deficit and $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade.
On Jan. 7, 2009, two weeks before Obama took office, the Congressional Budget Office reported that the deficit for fiscal year 2009 was projected to be $1.2 trillion. The 10-year projection was estimated to be about $3.1 trillion. So Obama's number was very close on the 2009 deficit -- he said $1.3 trillion -- but substantially different from the 10-year projection -- he said $8 trillion.
There are two reasons why he differs from the CBO. On the difference between the $1.2 trillion and the $1.3 trillion, the Obama administration credited a small portion of spending on its watch to policies of the previous administration. The reason for this is that the federal government runs on a fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, so Bush and Obama technically split responsibility for 2009 spending.
The large difference on the 10-year projection has to do with Bush administration tax cuts. The CBO creates its estimates based on current law, which means the CBO assumes that the Bush tax cuts will end in 2010 and everyone will start paying higher taxes in 2011 and going forward. The Obama administration, on the other hand, assumed in its baseline that those tax cuts would be renewed.
Economists we spoke with -- Josh Gordon, policy director for the Concord Coalition, and Brian Riedl, lead budget analyst of the conservative Heritage Foundation -- both said they believe the White House approach is more realistic because it assumes current policy will continue.
So the CBO's estimate is $5 trillion lower than the White House numbers, though economists don't quibble with the White House methodology. It does highlight, however, that when it comes to budget projections, people can have differences of opinion about what to include. In any budget projection there is room for interpretation, but it seems reasonable to assume for a baseline that the Bush tax cuts will continue. Obama's numbers are fairly solid, so we rate his statement Mostly True.
White House, Budget Summary Tables, Feb. 20, 2009
New York Times, How Trillion-Dollar Deficits Were Created, June 10, 2009
Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: An Update, Aug., 2009
Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2002-2011, Jan. 2001
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Obama Administration Largely Inherited Today's Huge Deficits, accessed Jan. 15, 2010
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