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By Sean Gorman March 5, 2012

McDonnell says Obama, if reelected, would drive debt to $25 trillion in 2017

Gov. Bob McDonnell says the country can’t afford another four years of President Barack Obama.

"[The president’s] budget would call for about $25 trillion in debt by the end of his term, if he was re-elected," McDonnell, a Republican, said at Politico’s Feb. 24 State Solutions Conference.

The total U.S. debt stands at about $15.5 trillion. About two-thirds of it is owed to investors and the rest is owed to trust funds for government programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

McDonnell’s statement caught our eye. If Obama is re-elected, would his policies really lead to a  $9.5 trillion expansion of the national debt by the time the president leaves office in January 2017?

Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the governor, stressed to us that McDonnell’s statement was made during an hour-long "extemporaneous" exchange over a range of issues. Then he offered a clarification.

Martin said in an email that McDonnell had cited a figure on what the debt would be at the end of a 10-year projection contained in the president’s budget for the current 2012 fiscal year.

Martin pointed to White House summary tables for that budget estimating it would lead to a total national debt of $26.3 trillion in 2021. The tables essentially assume that policies in the budget will be carried out for a decade.

On Feb. 13, more than a week before McDonnell made his statement, the president introduced his budget for fiscal 2013, which starts Oct. 1. The White House projected the plan would lead to gross national debts of $25 trillion in 2021 and $25.9 trillion in 2022.

"Under the terms of his introduced budgets, the president, if re-elected, would leave office in January 2017 with the national debt estimated to reach approximately $25 trillion by 2021," Martin said.

But that’s not what the governor said. McDonnell said the debt would hit the $25 trillion mark by the end of a hypothetical second Obama term in January 2017. There’s a considerable difference.

The president’s current spending proposal projects the debt will grow to $21.3 trillion by the end of fiscal 2017 -- the last year for which a two-term Obama would submit a budget. That’s still a leap from the current debt, but $3.7 trillion below what McDonnell said.

To put that number in focus, $3.7 trillion is also the entire amount this year’s federal budget. The sum would roughly cover four years of government spending on Social Security or six years of outlays for defense.

Jason Peuquet, research director at the centrist Committee for a Responsible Federal  Budget, said that while 10-year projections are important to budget, they are also extremely volatile. "These things are about 100 percent guaranteed to be not right on the mark," he said.

Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition -- an organization that advocates balanced budgets -- does not put much stock in measuring debt by simple dollars. Gordon said it’s best to look at it in proportion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product -- the total goods and services produced -- because that compares the debt to a nation’s ability to pay.

U.S. total debt is now about 101 percent of GDP. The White House projects it would peak at 107.8 percent of GDP in 2014 under Obama’s budget before dropping to 102.3 percent in 2021.

Our ruling

McDonnell said that if Obama is reelected this year, his budget policies would push total U.S. debt to about $25 trillion by the time the president’s second term expired in 2017.

The governor’s spokesman qualified the statement. McDonnell, he said, cited a White House projection of the national debt in 2021 if Obama’s policies are continued. Indeed, the administration has estimated a $25 trillion debt that year.

But in 2017 -- at the end of a second Obama term that McDonnell addressed with dread -- the debt would be $21.3 trillion. That’s still a heavy load, but significantly less then the governor claimed.

McDonnell’s statement is based on the element of truth that the debt will continue to rise under Obama’s policies, but greatly exaggerates by how much. We rate his claim Mostly False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Politico, "State Solutions Conference," Feb. 24, 2012. (statement occurs 36.5 minutes into the video).

E-mail from Tucker Martin, March 1, 2012.

Government Printing Office, "Fiscal Year 2012 Budget of the United States summary tables," Feb. 14, 2011.

Office of Management and Budget, the "Fiscal year 2013 Budget of the United States summary tables," Feb. 13, 2012.

Congressional Budget Office, "An analysis of the president’s budgetary proposals for Fiscal Year 2012," April 2011.

Interview with Josh Gordon, policy director at the Concord Coalition, March 1, 2012.

Interview with Jason Peuquet, research director at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, March 1, 2012.

Treasury Direct, "The debt to the penny and who holds it," Feb. 29, 2012.

U.S. Senate Budget Committee Republican website, "The Obama 2013 budget: summary and analysis,"  Feb. 14, 2012.

Office of Management and Budget, "Federal Debt at the end of the year,"  accessed March 2, 2012.

The Washington Post, "Obama budget: national debt will be $1 trillion higher in a decade than forcecast," Feb. 13, 2012.

Congressional Budget Office, "Glossary,"  accessed March 2, 2012.

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McDonnell says Obama, if reelected, would drive debt to $25 trillion in 2017

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