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During the Dec. 15, 2011, Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Mitt Romney took a shot at President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy and the federal budget.
"We all understand that the spending crisis is extraordinary, with $15 trillion now in debt, with a president that’s racked up as much debt as almost all of the other presidents combined."
If this sounds familiar, it is: It’s a variation on a claim we’ve addressed before.
Romney said something similar at a roundtable of small business leaders in Salem, N.H., on June 27, 2011. Romney said that Obama "is on track to have added so much debt to this country, that by the end of his first term, he will have added as much debt as all the prior presidents of this country combined." We rated the statement Mostly True.
But the second statement won’t get the same rating, for a couple of reasons.
Type of debt being measured
There are actually two main ways of tabulating the debt. One is public debt, which includes all debt borrowed by the federal government and held by investors through Treasury notes and other securities.
The other is gross federal debt, which includes public debt plus debt held by the government. The most notable forms of debt held by the government are the trust funds for Social Security and Medicare, money which is owed to beneficiaries in the future.
In June, Romney spokesman Ryan Williams told us that the candidate was referring to debt held by the public, so we used that for our measurements. But Romney’s comment from the Sioux City debate was less clear. In the debate, Romney initially said the nation is "$15 trillion now in debt." That’s a measure of gross federal debt -- which is not the measurement he’d been using in previous statements.
We were confused about how to proceed, so we checked with the Romney camp. They confirmed that Romney was basing his comparison on public debt. That clarifies our assignment, but it does mean that Romney offered contradictory information in making his debt comparison.
In the earlier statement at the New Hampshire roundtable, Romney was pretty clear that he was talking about how much Obama will have added "by the end of his first term." By contrast, the more recent statement from Sioux City lacks that qualifier, and instead makes it sound like Romney was referring to the amount of debt Obama has racked up so far in his term. The extra year or more in Obama’s first term adds enough debt to make a significant difference in the result.
To analyze Romney’s comparison requires determining the start and end points for calculating how much of the debt can be categorized as falling within Obama’s first term. This is not as easy as it sounds.
Obama took office on January 20, 2009, but who "owns" the debt recorded for fiscal year 2009 is unclear. Obama signed off on the budget that year, but it was assembled during Bush’s term, and it does not really bear Obama’s imprint.
When judging Romney’s claim from the Sioux City debate -- how much debt has accumulated so far during Obama’s term -- we believe that there are three plausible date ranges:
-- October 1, 2008 (the start of fiscal 2009) to Dec. 14, 2011 (the day before the Sioux City debate)
-- January 20, 2009 (the day of Obama’s inauguration) to Dec. 14, 2011
-- October 1, 2009 (the start of fiscal 2010, Obama's first full budget year) to Dec. 14, 2011
We are able to calculate the debt figures using the U.S. Department of Treasury’s "Debt to the Penny" calculator. Here are the public debt totals accumulated during the three periods we listed above:
* End of fiscal year 2008, when the accrued debt under the 43 presidents was $5.851 trillion, to Dec. 14, 2011, when the debt was $10.393 trillion. No, not more than the previous 43 presidents combined.
* Obama inauguration, when the accrued debt was $6.307 trillion, to Dec. 14, 2011, when the debt was $10.393 trillion. No, not more than the previous 43 presidents combined.
* End of fiscal year 2009, when the accrued debt was $7.506 trillion, to Dec. 14, 2011, when the debt was $10.393 trillion. No, not more than the previous 43 presidents combined.
What’s the meaning of "almost"?
In the Sioux City debate -- but not the New Hampshire roundtable -- Romney gave himself some breathing room by inserting the word "almost." But what he meant by that "almost" is not so obvious.
In the actual quote, Romney places "almost" before "every president." We’re not quite sure how one would define "almost every president" -- do you drop George W. Bush, who accumulated a lot of debt, or William Henry Harrison, who died a few weeks into his term? If you subtract George W. Bush from the calculation, it's a very favorable way to calculate it from Romney’s perspective, and in fact for one of the measurements -- comparing the accumulated debt level at the start of fiscal 2001 to what Obama has added so far, Obama’s figure is higher.
But when we talked to the Romney camp, they said that the candidate had actually meant to say, "almost as much debt as." So how does that formulation mesh with our math above?
Under the first of our three scenarios, the debt under Obama has increased by about 78 percent of the amount it rose under the previous 43 presidents. That’s off by more than 20 percent. The other two scenarios don’t come that close. For the second scenario, it’s 65 percent, and for the third, it’s 38 percent.
An additional point that affects all comparisons of this sort: Because of the effects of inflation, it’s not entirely fair to compare debt accumulated today to debt accumulated in the time of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt. But neutralizing that problem isn’t easy, so we won’t do anything beyond noting the issue.
Romney was trying to revive a talking point -- that by the end of his first term, Obama will have added as much debt as all the prior 43 presidents combined -- that was accurate enough to earn a Mostly True from PolitiFact. This time, though, he allowed small but significant changes to creep in and weaken its accuracy.
Romney confused public debt and gross debt; he failed to clarify that he was talking about the debt accruing during the entirety of Obama’s first term; and he misplaced the word "almost" in a way that makes it hard to parse his claim. If we use the public debt figure and put the word "almost" where the Romney campaign says it should be, "almost" might apply to one of three comparisons -- one in which the debt is about four-fifths of the way to equalling totals under previous presidents. That’s a grain of truth, but not much more. We rate the statement Mostly False.
Newt Gingrich, comments at a Republican presidential debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Dec. 15, 2011
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says Barack Obama will add more debt than 43 prior presidents," July 10, 2011
U.S. Department of Treasury, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It," accessed Dec. 16, 2011
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