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During the first presidential debate in Denver, Mitt Romney took President Barack Obama to task for his record on the deficit.
"The president said he’d cut the deficit in half," Romney said. "Unfortunately, he doubled it."
We already ruled the first half of this statement True, noting that Obama said on Feb. 23, 2009, "Today I am pledging to cut the deficit we inherited in half by the end of my first term in office."
But what about Romney’s second claim, that Obama "doubled" the deficit he inherited?
Romney is way off.
The final Congressional Budget Office baseline deficit projection before Obama took office -- noted in table 5 in this January 2009 CBO report -- showed a fiscal year 2009 deficit of $1.19 trillion.
That figure doesn’t account for any of Obama’s own spending initiatives, such as the stimulus bill. But the deficit grew quickly under Obama: The fiscal 2009 deficit rose to $1.41 trillion and has remained above $1 trillion annually ever since.
But compared to what Obama inherited, the annual deficit has gone down slightly. CBO projects that for fiscal 2012, which has just ended, the fiscal 2012 deficit will be $1.09 trillion.
So, far from doubling the deficit, Obama (along with, it should be noted, some Republican help in Congress) has instead reduced the deficit by about 8 percent.
The only way to get to doubling is to use a different starting point, which is what the Romney campaign does. His campaign compares the current deficit to the final fiscal 2008 deficit of $458.6 billion.
But we don't find that to be the correct starting point.
Romney was referring to a statement Obama made on Feb. 23, 2009, so the correct comparison would be the deficit at that point. The 2008 deficit covered a fiscal year that ended about four months before Obama took office -- and which was also a period of rapid economic deterioration that affected the scale of CBO’s deficit projections. So CBO’s January 2009 figure offers a much more accurate indication of what Obama "inherited" -- which, we should repeat, is the word Obama used in his broken promise of February 2009.
Romney would still have been off if he had said the federal debt, rather than deficit, had doubled on Obama’s watch. The debt held by the public -- one of two key measures of federal debt -- rose from $6.3 trillion on Jan. 20, 2009, to $11.3 trillion on the day of the debate, an increase of 79 percent. The total federal debt, which includes debt the government holds itself, rose by a smaller amount over that period, 53 percent.
Romney said that Obama has "doubled" the deficit. In reality, using the most appropriate comparison, he and Congress have actually decreased the deficit slightly. We rate Romney’s statement False.
Mitt Romney, transcript of first presidential debate in Denver, Oct. 3, 2012
Office of Management and Budget, "Table 1.1—Summary of Receipts, Outlays, and Surpluses or Deficits (-): 1789–2017," accessed Oct. 5, 2012
Congressional Budget Office, "Monthly Budget Review: Fiscal Year 2012," October 5, 2012
Office of Management and Budget, "Updated Summary Tables," May 2009
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, "Omissions and Clarifications From Our Fact-Checking," Oct. 4, 2012
Treasury Department, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It," accessed Oct. 5, 2012
YouTube.com, Obama’s remarks after fiscal responsibility summit, Feb. 23, 2009
PolitiFact, "Romney says Obama promised to cut deficit in half," Oct. 4, 2012
Email interviews with Adam Rosenberg and Marc Goldwein of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Oct. 5, 2012
Email interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Oct. 5, 2012
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