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UPDATE: A more recent version of a similar claim is available here.
When it comes to increasing the national debt, President Barack Obama has done more than his 43 predecessors combined.
Well, at least that’s according to a chain e-mail circulating in New Jersey, echoing a claim made to varying degrees by different Republican officials in recent years. With the subject line "A picture is worth 1,000 words," the chain e-mail features a graphic to make its case.
Above pictures of Presidents George Washington and George W. Bush, one side of the graphic reads "Debt Added By The Previous 43 U.S. PRESIDENTS COMBINED --- 1789 through 2008." Beneath the presidents’ photos is "$6.3 TRILLION DOLLARS."
On the other side of the graphic is a photo of a smiling Obama, beneath the words "Debt Added By PRESIDENT OBAMA --- One Term!" The amount listed below the photo is "$6.5 TRILLION DOLLARS."
A picture may be worth 1,000 words, but the wording of this chain e-mail makes for a largely inaccurate claim.
The main problem is the chain e-mail suggests that Obama already has "added" $6.5 trillion to the national debt. His administration is on track to add nearly that amount to one form of debt by October 2013, but the president has not added that much debt yet.
First, let’s explain the two commonly cited forms of national debt -- debt held by the public and total debt.
The debt held by the public refers to money borrowed from investors outside of the federal government. The total debt represents debt held by the public as well as money the federal government owes itself, including for programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
On Jan. 20, 2009, the date of Obama's inauguration, the debt held by the public -- as accrued by Obama’s predecessors -- stood at roughly $6.307 trillion and the total debt was about $10.6 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s "Debt to the Penny" calculator.
Since the amount listed for Obama's predecessors in the chain e-mail appears to be in reference to the $6.307 trillion in debt held by the public on Jan. 20, 2009, that's the starting point for our analysis.
Next, we'll show how much both forms of debt had increased as of April 27, 2012 -- the last date available at the time we received the chain e-mail.
By that date, the debt held by the public was about $10.8 trillion and total debt had climbed to roughly $15.6 trillion.
So, under Obama’s watch, debt held by the public had increased by about $4.5 trillion, or roughly 72 percent. Total debt had increased by nearly $5 trillion, or about 47 percent.
By either form of debt, the amounts added during Obama’s administration were not greater than the levels on the day he took office.
Now, let’s explain one way that this chain e-mail could be considered accurate.
If we take into account administration projections for debt held by the public as of the end of fiscal year 2013, then the amount of that debt added would exceed the level from Jan. 20, 2009. Fiscal year 2013 is the last budget year to begin during Obama’s first term.
According to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, debt held by the public is estimated to be about $12.636 trillion at the end of fiscal year 2013, which concludes Sept. 30, 2013.
Based on that estimate, the amount of debt held by the public that was added during Obama’s tenure would be about $6.329 trillion, surpassing the amount as of his inauguration by about $22 billion.
In terms of total debt -- projected to increase to $17.5 trillion -- the amount added by the end of fiscal year 2013 would still not exceed the total amount on Jan. 20, 2009.
Before we get to our ruling, it's worth noting that actions taken by both Presidents Bush and Obama have contributed to the debt increases over the last decade. Those factors include tax cuts enacted under Bush and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which were started by the Bush administration, as well as the stimulus bill and another tax cut deal approved by Obama.
Experts also have pointed to the weak economy as a contributing factor to the higher debt, given the reduction in federal revenues and greater spending on items like unemployment benefits.
A chain e-mail circulating in New Jersey claims that Obama has "added" $6.5 trillion to the national debt, while his 43 predecessors added $6.3 trillion combined.
But the chain e-mail is wrong to suggest the additional debt during Obama’s tenure already has exceeded the level of his predecessors. In terms of both debt held by the public and total debt, the Obama administration has added less debt than the amounts in place when he took office.
Still, the national debt is projected to keep increasing. The amount of added debt held by the public may exceed Obama’s predecessors by October 2013, according to White House projections.
We rate the statement Mostly False.
To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.
Chain e-mail, A picture is worth 1,000 words..., received by PolitiFact New Jersey on April 30, 2012
PolitiFact Georgia, Obama setting debt record, Georgia GOP says, Feb. 13, 2012
PolitiFact, Mitt Romney says Obama has "racked up as much debt as almost all of the other presidents combined", Dec. 16, 2011
PolitiFact, Mitt Romney says Barack Obama will add more debt than 43 prior presidents, July 10, 2011
FactCheck.org, Dueling Debt Deceptions, Feb. 2, 2012
U.S. Department of the Treasury, Debt to the Penny, accessed April 30, 2012
White House Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2013 Budget: Historical Tables, accessed April 30, 2012
Congressional Budget Office, The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022, January 2012
White House Office of Management and Budget, Fiscal Year 2012 Budget: Historical Tables, accessed April 30, 2012
Congressional Budget Office, An Analysis of the President’s 2013 Budget, March 2012
PolitiFact, Sarah Palin says Obama has accumulated more debt than previous 43 presidents combined, June 1, 2011
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Federal Debt: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions, accessed May 3, 2012
U.S. Department of the Treasury, 2011 Financial Report of the United States Government, accessed May 3, 2012
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Policy Basics: Deficits, Debt, and Interest, March 19, 2009
The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, Government Debt and Deficits, accessed May 3, 2012
Congressional Research Service, Overview of the Federal Debt, May 11, 2011
Congressional Research Service, How Budget Surpluses Change Federal Debt, Jan. 4, 2001
PolitiFact New Jersey, Bob Menendez attacked by GOP challenger over federal debt increases, Jan. 8, 2012
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