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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson October 9, 2012

Ad says Barack 'Obama’s spending drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt.'

In a new ad, the pro-Republican group American Crossroads takes aim at President Barack Obama’s economic policies. At one point, the narrator says, that "Obama’s spending drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt."

We previously examined a similar -- but opposite claim -- when Obama said that "over the last four years, the deficit has gone up, but 90 percent of that is as a consequence of" President George W. Bush’s policies and the recession.

We ruled Obama’s claim False, and a recalculation of the same numbers can shed some light on the American Crossroads claim as well. We contacted American Crossroads for this fact-check, but a spokesman did not respond to our inquiry.

First, the bottom-line number on the debt: Yes, it has grown by $5 trillion during Obama’s tenure. Total debt has increased by $5.5 trillion since January 20, 2009, while the share of that debt held by the public has increased by $5 trillion.

But it’s not entirely correct to hang that increase on "Obama’s spending" alone.

In our previous item, we looked at calculations by the Treasury Department based on data from the Congressional Budget Office, the independent number-crunching arm of Congress.

To figure out what caused the accumulation of deficits over the past decade, CBO tracked the surplus it had projected back in 2001 and compared it with the actual cumulative deficits that resulted instead. CBO specifically broke out how much several laws contributed to the deficit, some of which started under Bush and some under Obama.

Because American Crossroads was only referring to the debt added during Obama’s tenure, we only looked at fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011. And because the American Crossroads ad does not reference how much the deficits fell below the surpluses that had been forecast by CBO, we’re going to exclude from our calculations a category CBO called its own "failures to predict economic conditions accurately."

We added up the lost revenue and additional spending each year and then calculated their percentage of the deficits over those three years.

Spending initiated by Bush policies: 4 percent of total deficits in 2009, 2010 and 2011
Spending initiated by Obama policies:  11 percent
Other increases in discretionary spending: 32 percent
Other increases in mandatory spending: 6 percent
Revenue reductions
Revenue reductions initiated by Bush policies: 11 percent
Revenue reductions initiated by Obama policies: 13 percent
Other unclassified revenue reductions: 5 percent

Net interest: 19 percent

The spending increases traceable to programs clearly attributable to Obama, combined with the increase in discretionary spending on his watch, account for about 43 percent of the three years worth of deficits.

So if you’re talking about what "drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt," then a clear majority stemmed from sources other than "Obama’s spending."

If you expand the definition from "Obama’s spending" to "Obama’s spending and tax cuts," you get to a total of 56 percent. Throw in 13 percentage points for the added interest costs of Obama’s policies and you’re at 69 percent.

Our ruling

The American Crossroads ad claims that "Obama’s spending drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt."

Featured Fact-check

But not all of the $5 trillion can be attributed to Obama's spending. Much of it can be attributed to his tax cuts and the policies of President Bush.  On balance, we rate the claim Half True.

Our Sources

Barack Obama,interviewwith CBS’ 60 Minutes, Sept. 23, 2012
Congressional Budget Office, "Changes in CBO’s Baseline Projections Since January 2001," June 7, 2012
Treasury Department, "Changes in deficit projections since January 2001," Feb. 2012

Treasury Department, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It," accessed Oct. 8, 2012
PolitiFact, "Barack Obama says he's responsible for just 10 percent of budget shortfalls," Sep. 27, 2012

Washington Post Fact Checker, "Obama’s claim that ‘90 percent’ of the current deficit is due to Bush policies," Sept. 26, 2012
New York Times, "Obama Pushes Tax Cut Extension That Excludes Wealthiest," July 9, 2012

Interview with Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Oct. 8, 2012

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

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Ad says Barack 'Obama’s spending drove us $5 trillion deeper in debt.'

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