Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley July 26, 2011

Obama says Reagan raised debt ceiling 18 times; George W. Bush seven times

In a televised address to the nation on July 25, 2011, to discuss the pending deadline on the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama made his pitch for a "balanced" approach to reducing the deficit -- one that includes spending cuts as well as revenue increases from tax increases for wealthier Americans.

With the debt ceiling issue caught in a political deadlock over how to reduce the deficit, Obama noted that raising the debt ceiling has been a relatively routine exercise for decades.

"Understand –- raising the debt ceiling does not allow Congress to spend more money," Obama said. "It simply gives our country the ability to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up. In the past, raising the debt ceiling was routine.  Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed it, and every President has signed it. President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times. And we have to do it by next Tuesday, August 2nd, or else we won’t be able to pay all of our bills."

Our colleagues at PolitiFact New Jersey last week looked at a similar claim, that every president has raised the debt ceiling. They found that was Mostly True. Only President Harry S. Truman did not.

Here, we are looking at Obama's claim that, "President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times."

We'll go straight to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which keeps tabs on when the debt ceiling has been raised.

Among its historical tables is one labeled "Statutory Limits on Federal debt 1940 - Current" (Table 7.3) The table lists 106 increases to the federal debt limit since 1940.

More specifically, it lists 18 increases to the debt ceiling between February 1981 and September 1987. In other words, there were 18 under President Ronald Reagan, as Obama said. And there were seven increases between January 2001 and January 2009 -- during George W. Bush's presidency. We should also note that it has been raised three times already under President Obama, on Feb. 17, 2009, Dec. 28, 2009 and Feb. 12, 2010.

We would be remiss if we failed to note that Obama opposed one of those increases to the debt ceiling under George W. Bush and criticized Bush for a lack of leadership.

"The fact that we are here today to debate raising America's debt limit is a sign of leadership failure. It is a sign that the U.S. Government can't pay its own bills," Obama said before a March 16, 2006, vote on raising the debt limit. The Senate narrowly approved raising the limit along partisan lines, 52-48, with all Democrats opposed.

In an April 15, 2011, interview, Obama said he regrets his position in 2006.

"I think that it's important to understand the vantage point of a senator versus the vantage point of a president," Obama said. "When you're a senator, traditionally what's happened is, this is always a lousy vote. Nobody likes to be tagged as having increased the debt limit -- for the United States by a trillion dollars. As president, you start realizing, you know what, we, we can't play around with this stuff. This is the full faith and credit of the United States. And so that was just an example of a new senator making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country. And I'm the first one to acknowledge it."

We rated that position a Full Flop on our Flip-O-Meter.

Typically, the party that controls the White House has had to take the difficult vote to raise the limit, while the other party was free to criticize. An analysis of the past 10 years of votes on the debt limit from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center shows the vote usually splits along partisan lines, with the president's party voting in support.

Nonetheless, Obama is correct that raising the debt ceiling has been an issue repeatedly tackled by Republicans and Democrats alike. President Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times and George W. Bush did it seven times. We rate his claim True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

White House Office of Management and Budget,Statutory Limits on Federal Debt: 1940-Current

Congressional Research Service,The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, July 1, 2011

Congressional Research Service, The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, April 29, 2008

U.S. General Accounting Office, Information on Debt Ceiling Limitations and Increases, Feb. 23, 1996

Congressional Record, Remarks by Sen. Barack Obama, March 16, 2006

U.S. Senate, roll call vote, March 16, 2006

Congressional Research Service, The Debt Limit: History and Recent Increases, Sept. 8, 2010

ABC News, Obama Exclusive: Concedes Senate Voteainst Raising Debt Limit Was 'Political', April 14, 2011

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Robert Farley

Obama says Reagan raised debt ceiling 18 times; George W. Bush seven times

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up