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When the Treasury Department announced on Sept. 4 that the national debt had topped $16 trillion, the Associated Press reported, Barack Obama's GOP rivals "used the grim-but-expected news to criticize the president for the government's fiscal performance over his 3 1/2 years in office."
Among the leaders who issued news releases was House Speaker John Boehner.
Instead of working to cut the deficit, the Ohio Republican said, "the president went on a stimulus-fueled spending binge that stuck every American man, woman, and child with a $50,000 share of this $16 trillion national debt."
PolitiFact Ohio was interested. Does spending under Obama break down to a $50,000-per-person share of the national debt?
We asked Boehner's office for more information.
They responded that the speaker "has often talked about President Obama’s stimulus-fueled spending binge" and called it "a reference to his entire approach to economic policy, not just one bill ...
"It's the strategy Obama has pursued since taking office: spend more, refuse to make cuts and reforms where needed because, he argues, such cuts and reforms would hurt the economy. Under his presidency," Boehner’s staff said, "our national debt has increased by $5 trillion and has brought the total share in debt for every American to $50,000. We would not have reached that level of debt on September 4th without the contribution of his economic policies."
The cost per person is accurate, and even a little understated. With population estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau at roughly 314.4 million, the average share works out to about $50,900.
The national debt has risen more than $5.4 trillion from its level of $10.6 trillion when Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009.
But can that all be tied to Obama's spending? It’s a question we’ve addressed before.
In May, PolitiFact looked at historical data from the Office of Management and Budget along with projections from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and calculated the average spending increases per year for 10 presidents over the past 60 years (skipping President Gerald Ford, whose tenure was too short to adequately measure).
Using raw dollars (not adjusted for inflation), Obama oversaw the lowest annual increases of spending among them. Jimmy Carter had the highest, followed by Richard Nixon.
PolitiFact also did a recalculation because of the special case of 2009, which came amid an economic and financial free fall that drove the nation’s leaders to spend a lot more than they ordinarily would. The 2009 fiscal year began four months before Obama moved into the White House, and its major spending decisions were made by George W. Bush and the previous Congress.
The recalculation shifted spending from Bush to Obama for the economic stimulus package, an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, an incremental increase in appropriations over Bush's level and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
That shift moved Obama from last place in spending increases to either second from the bottom or third from the bottom.
Using inflation-adjusted dollars, Obama had the second-lowest increase in average annual spending. In fact, he actually presided over a decrease once inflation is taken into account. (Lyndon Johnson was highest on that chart; Dwight Eisenhower was lowest.)
So why the disconnect between Obama’s image as a big spender and the reality of how much federal spending has actually grown?
First, Obama’s record on debt is a lot less flattering than is his record on federal government spending. During the time that spending is poised to be increasing by 1.4 percent per year under Obama, the debt will be increasing by 14.6 percent per year.
The reason? Year by year, federal revenues haven’t been keeping up with spending, due to the struggling national economy (which has held back tax revenues) and a continuation of tax cuts.
And each year there’s an annual deficit, the national debt grows.
Second, federal spending under Obama is higher as a share of gross domestic product than it has been in most of the previous 60 years. That, too is because of the economy, which has simultaneously slowed the growth of GDP and boosted government spending for programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.
Third, the aging of the baby boomers has driven a rise in entitlement spending that is masking cuts Obama and the GOP Congress have made, and have promised to make, in discretionary spending.
Finally, many Americans associate Obama with the high-profile legislative activities of his first year or two, when initiatives such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- commonly called the stimulus -- sent spending upward the fastest. Since then, spending has slowed, thanks in part to spending cuts pushed by congressional Republicans.
FactCheck.org found the spending Obama inherited "was so high that even modest increases keep it at a level that is extraordinarily lofty by historical standards." As a percentage of Gross Domestic Product, the nation's economic production, spending is running at the highest level since the 1940s.
But tax revenues are also low by historical standards, FactCheck.org found, and are at their lowest level as a percentage of GDP since 1950.
Boehner’s claim included an accurate estimate of what the national debt of $16 trillion would cost per person.
But his claim stated that as a result of a presidential "stimulus-fueled spending binge" every American man, woman, and child" was stuck with a $50,000 share of the $16 trillion debt. That’s an overreach.
The debt grew to $16 trillion not just because of Obama's actions, but also due to actions taken by present and past presidents and Congresses.
The stimulus package came with a $787 billion price tag. If you include all growth in the national debt under the Obama administration, it’s roughly $5.4 trillion, not $16 trillion. The administration inherited a national debt of more than $10 trillion when it came into office.
But Boehner’s claim saddles the administration with responsibility for all of the $16 trillion.
On the Truth-O-Meter, Boehner’s claim rates False.
Speaker of the House John Boehner website, news release, "Statement as National Debt Surpasses $16 Trillion," Sept. 4, 2012
Associated Press via NPR, "National Debt Hits $16T; GOP Critical," Sept. 4, 2012
U.S. Treasury Dept., Public Debt Reports
ABC News, "6 Important Historical Moments in Our Nation's Debt," Sept. 6, 2012
PolitiFact, "Viral Facebook post says Barack Obama has lowest spending record of any recent president," May 23, 2012
FactCheck.org, "Obama’s Spending: ‘Inferno’ or Not?" June 7, 2012
PolitiFact Wisconsin, "President Obama 'built' nation's $16 trillion debt, GOP Rep. Reid Ribble says," Sept. 12, 2012
PolitiFact, "Chris Christie says there has been '$5 trillion in debt added over the last four years’," Aug. 28, 2012
CNN, "Stimulus package en route to Obama’s desk," Feb. 14, 2009
U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. POPClock Projection
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