Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher September 12, 2012

President Obama 'built' nation's $16 trillion debt, GOP Rep. Reid Ribble says

When President Barack Obama said "If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that," he meant that success in business was the result of government, not hard-working people, according to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

In late July 2012, PolitiFact National rated the claim False, saying Romney took Obama’s words out of context. But barely a month later, the Republican National Convention was replete with referencesto Obama’s "you didn’t build that" comment.

Among those sounding the theme from the Tampa, Fla., gathering was U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., a first-term congressman serving the Green Bay area.

During an Aug. 30, 2012 interview, Ribble and Jerry Bader, host of a conservative radio talk show on WTAQ-AM and -FM in Green Bay, talked for several minutes about the Obama comment. The interview was done the day after U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Romney’s running mate, spoke to the convention.

Ribble said: "What the president did build, though -- and (Ryan) talked about this last night -- is he built this $16 trillion debt. He did build that."

Wait. All of it?

At first glance, Ribble’s claim may appear way off. But let’s examine the numbers.

How much we owe

We checked the U.S. Treasury Department’s "debt to the penny" meter for the day Ribble made his statement. The debt was a few hairs under $16 trillion, although it crossed that threshold several days later.

We then spun the meter back to Jan. 20, 2009, the day of Obama’s inauguration. The debt was $10.6 trillion.  

That means debt rose $5.4 trillion under Obama -- about one-third of the $16 trillion total.

By saying Obama "built this $16 trillion debt. He did build that," Ribble suggested Obama was responsible for the entire amount.

Ribble spokeswoman Ashley Olson disagreed, saying it’s obvious the $16 trillion accumulated over many years. Her boss’ point, she said, was that it reached $16 trillion because of Obama.

But even if that was what Ribble meant in blaming Obama, he cited the $16 trillion debt figure, not the roughly $5 trillion accumulated during his presidency.

Obama’s role

As for what role Obama played in the accumulation of debt, Olson cited a number of news articles about how much debt and spending increased during Obama's time as president. Let’s look at two of them.

1. "Obama is the undisputed debt king of the last five presidents"

That line is from PolitiFact National, although it is a bit dated. It’s from May 2011, when our colleagues rated as Pants on Firea claim by then-U.S. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that Obama "increased the debt" 16 percent while President George W. Bush raised it 115 percent.

In saying Obama was the debt king among the last five presidents dating back to Ronald Reagan, PolitiFact National found that under one measure -- debt as a percentage of gross national product -- Obama ranked highest. As of December 2010, the ratio under Obama had risen nearly 22 percentage points; Reagan was second at 14.9.

(However, using raw numbers, our colleagues found that at the time, the debt had increased by 34 percent, or $3.66 trillion, under Obama -- well below the 86 percent increase, or a total of $4.9 trillion, under George W. Bush.)

2. Obama budgets and spending up each year

A May 2012 analysis by The Washington Post Fact Checker found that Obama's budgets have increased each year, from $3.27 trillion in 2009 to $3.65 trillion in 2012; and that Obama proposed more in spending each year than Congress ultimately approved.

So, the debt has increased significantly under Obama. But, despite Ribble’s claim, the responsibility goes far beyond the White House.

Other factors

When Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said at the GOP convention that $5 trillion in debt had been added over the past four years, PolitiFact National rated his statement Mostly True. Our colleagues pointed out that while the figure was on target, the blame is bipartisan. Democrats had majorities in the Senate and House for two years of Obama’s presidency, but Republicans have controlled the House since January 2011. Moreover, our colleagues noted, much of the debt stems from entitlement spending policies that were set under past presidents and Congresses.

PolitiFact Ohio made similar points in June 2012 when it rated as Half True a statement by Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, that debt under Obama had risen $5 trillion -- more than any other president.

Our Buckeye colleagues noted that although Obama approved the stimulus bill and a deal to extend tax cuts, both of which contributed to the debt, Obama’s administration has cited decisions made under GOP President George W. Bush -- including tax cuts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Medicare prescription drug program -- as major contributors to the debt.

Our rating

Ribble said Obama "built this $16 trillion debt." His spokeswoman said Ribble meant that the debt had reached that level because of Obama.

But Ribble used the $16 trillion figure, not the roughly $5 trillion that the debt has increased under Obama. Moreover, the debt grew not only due to Obama’s actions, but those taken by present and past presidents and Congresses.

We rate Ribble’s statement False.

Our Sources

WTAQ, Jerry Bader interview with U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble, Aug. 30, 2012

U.S. Treasury Department, "The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It" for Aug. 30, 2012

PolitiFact National, "Chris Christie says there has been "$5 trillion debt added over the last four years," Aug. 28, 2012

PolitiFact National, "Nancy Pelosi posts questionable chart on debt accumulation by Barack Obama, predecessors," May 19, 2011

PolitiFact National, "Putting Mitt Romney’s attacks on ‘You didn’t build that’ to the Truth-O-Meter," July 26, 2012

PolitiFact Ohio, "Jim Renacci says Obama has racked up more debt than any other president in history -- over $5 trillion," June 27, 2012

Email interview, U.S. Rep. Reid Ribble communications director Ashley Olson, Sept. 4 and 5, 2012

Email interview, Obama campaign Wisconsin press secretary Gillian Morris, Sept. 4, 2012

Washington Post, "The facts about the growth of spending under Obama," May 25, 2012

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Tom Kertscher

President Obama 'built' nation's $16 trillion debt, GOP Rep. Reid Ribble says

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up