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By Erin O'Neill July 28, 2011

U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance says government debt has grown by $3.4 trillion during the first 29 months of the Obama administration

Rep. Leonard Lance recently criticized the Washington establishment for spending the nation into a fiscal crisis.

In a July 17 column, Lance (R-7th Dist.) blamed both sides of the political aisle for driving up government debt , but also singled out President Barack Obama.

"Recently we have seen our government debt grow by $3.4 trillion during the first 29 months of the Obama administration -- the equivalent of about $4 billion per day,"  Lance wrote in the column published on

PolitiFact New Jersey checked whether government debt has increased that much since Obama took office -- and whether the president is responsible. We found Lance’s statistics are correct, but Obama’s role in debt growth is more difficult to pin down.

There are two types of government debt: one includes debt held by the public and the other includes debt held directly by the government, such as in trust funds for Social Security and Medicare. Collectively, those two types of debt make up gross national debt.

Lance’s spokeswoman, Angie Lundberg, said the congressman was referring to debt held by the public.

Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009. From then until July 15 -- the most recent data available at the time Lance made his statement -- publicly held debt increased more than $3.4 trillion, from more than $6.3 trillion to more than $9.75 trillion, according to U.S. Treasury Department data.

That’s a $3.75 billion increase per day. Round up and it’s "the equivalent of about $4 billion per day."

So, Lance had his numbers right. But is Obama responsible for that increase?

Lundberg said Lance didn’t "lay blame on how we acquired that debt, just stated the fact." But Lance highlighted the debt growth during Obama’s tenure, so we’ll look at how much the president is at fault.

Let’s note that when Obama took office he inherited all the debt accumulated by his predecessor, President George W. Bush.

An April report by the nonpartisan Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative analyzed the difference in the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s projections of publicly held debt and the actual debt from 2001 to 2011. The report found that about two-thirds of debt growth -- expressed as a percentage of the gross domestic product -- during that time resulted from new legislation, some of which was enacted under Bush.

The report said the Bush tax cuts, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2009 stimulus are three of the five "most significant legislative drivers" of the debt, but also notes that "no single policy or piece of legislation, however, is overwhelmingly responsible" for the increase.

We also spoke with five experts from different Washington, D.C.-think tanks. The general consensus was that while Obama can’t be saddled with all of the growth in debt since taking office, he is responsible for some of the increase.

Michael Linden, director for tax and budget policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, argued that the debt attributable to Obama would be the amount accrued from legislation Obama signed, including: the stimulus package, extension of the Bush tax cuts -- though he notes that was a bipartisan deal -- and his budgets.

"It’s difficult to tease out exactly how much" that’d account for, Linden said, "but it’s definitely not the whole $3.4 trillion."

Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Obama’s policies are to blame for most of the change in spending that contributed to debt growth, but not most of the change in revenues. Assigning blame for either entirely to the president would be wrong, he said.

Isabel Sawhill, a budget expert with the centrist-to-liberal Brookings Institution said Obama and factors outside his control are to blame for rising debt. "Obama’s actions to fight the financial crisis and the recession did add to the deficits and debt but are not the major culprits," she said in an email, citing "a persistent gap between spending and revenues, largely because of the aging population and the growing cost of health care."

Marc Goldwein, policy director of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, highlighted some legislation Obama signed that added to the debt, but said the economy is a factor.

Let’s review.

Lance correctly stated that government debt held by the public grew by $3.4 trillion during Obama’s tenure.

But experts said that while Obama can be blamed for some of that increase, he isn’t responsible for it all.  

We rate Lance’s statement Half True.

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Our Sources, Washington must better limit spending, July 17, 2011

U.S. Treasury Department, Debt to the Penny Calculator

Email interviews with Angie Lundberg, communications director for Rep. Leonard Lance, July 18-21, 2011

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, What’s Driving Projected Debt?, May 20, 2011

Pew Fiscal Analysis Initiative, Fiscal Facts: The Great Debt Shift, April 2011

Email interview with Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, July 19, 2011

Email interview with Dan Mitchell, senior fellow at the Cato Institute, July 19, 2011

Interview with Marc Goldwein, policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, July 21, 2011

Interview with Michael Linden, director for tax and budget policy at the Center for American Progress, July 21, 2011

Email and phone interview with Kevin Hassett, senior fellow and director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, July 25-26, 2011

Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2009 to 2019, Jan. 8, 2009

Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2011 to 2021, January 2011

PolitiFact, Rove claims Obama has already run up more debt than Bush did in eight years, Jan. 15, 2010

PolitiFact, Sarah Palin says Obama has accumulated more debt than previous 43 presidents combined, June 6, 2011

PolitiFact, $5 trillion added to national debt under Bush, Jan. 22, 2009

PolitiFact Florida, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz says nonpartisan CBO faults Bush tax cuts for debt crisis, July 25, 2011

U.S. Treasury Department, Frequently Asked Questions about the Public Debt, accessed July 25, 2011

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U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance says government debt has grown by $3.4 trillion during the first 29 months of the Obama administration

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