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By Dave Umhoefer September 28, 2012

Sen. Ron Johnson says deficits under Obama total $5.3 trillion, compared with $2 trillion under Bush

Remember those nerdy charts that Ross Perot flashed during his third-party run for president in 1992?

The Texas billionaire’s visual aids warned of the perils of America’s mounting government debt.

Twenty years later, Wisconsin’s junior U.S. Senator, Republican Ron Johnson, is taking a page from Perot as he acts as a surrogate for Mitt Romney and advocates for a spending slowdown.

Explaining one of his digital charts during a Sept. 11, 2012 campaign stop in Sheboygan, Johnson ripped Obama for saying his administration’s proposed "Buffett rule"  tax plan for million-dollar earners would "stabilize our debt and deficits for the next decade."

"I haven’t yet publicly called President Obama a liar," Johnson told his audience. "But I’m saying he lies. Slight diplomatic difference."

Johnson said the "Buffett rule" would raise just $5 billion a year. He’s right, as PolitiFact Ohio found in rating True a claim by Sen. Rob Portman that it would "bring in less than $5 billion per year. ... Enough to pay one week’s interest on the national debt."

Johnson’s presentation uses a chart to contrast the "Buffett Rule’s" revenue potential to the deficits accumulated under Obama (2009-2012) and over the two terms of his predecessor, Republican George W. Bush (2001-2008).

The chart shows deficits totalling $2 trillion in eight years under Bush, and $5.3 trillion under Obama in just four years. A caption on the chart says those deficits "exploded during the Obama administration."

Is Johnson right on the deficit numbers and their rapid growth?

As backup, Johnson’s campaign cited numbers from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

The figures show red-ink budgets in seven of eight years that coincide with Bush’s term. The annual deficits totalled $820 billion in his first term and nearly $1.2 trillion in his second.

Add them up and there’s the $2 trillion figure cited by Johnson.

That same White House table shows four years of deficits for 2009-’12, the time frame that coincides with the Obama era, ranging from $1.29 trillion to $1.4 trillion. The total, including estimated figures for 2012, is $5.33 trillion.

That’s nearly triple the Bush deficit figure, in half the time.

It seems simple, with the numbers and the trend matching up with Perot’s, er, Johnson’s chart.

We wish it were that simple.

But there is considerable disagreement in academic and political circles over how to assign responsibility to presidents for spending and deficits.

Using the same table and a slightly different approach can put a somewhat different spin on the trend line -- though we found no scenario under which the Bush-era deficits top those under Obama.

Here’s why.

The big question any researcher faces is when to start and end the clock when looking at spending and deficit by presidents.

It would be tidy to start the clock on Inauguration Day, but the federal budget year begins Oct. 1. That means an incoming president inherits a budget-in-progress from his predecessor, though he often makes changes.

That timing mismatch makes a pretty big difference, for example, in pinning deficit numbers on Bush and Obama.

To wit: Democrat Bill Clinton’s last budget, for fiscal 2001, resulted in a surplus of $128 billion -- the last black-ink budget on record. But Johnson attributed that surplus to Bush, who entered office Jan. 20, 2001. Johnson argues that once elected the budget can be changed by the new president.

Similarly, on the back end of the Bush years, Johnson gives the eye-popping 2009 deficit of     $1.4 trillion all to Obama -- even though Obama was working with Bush’s last budget, which took effect in October 2008, during the final months of Bush’s second term.

That methodology becomes even more important when you consider that just before Bush left office, the deficit for fiscal year 2009 already was projected to be $1.2 trillion, according to the scorekeeping agency for Congress, as reported by PolitiFact.

So, Johnson attributes the 2009 deficit entirely to Obama even though much it was already anticipated before the Democrat’s inauguration. (By the end of the 2009 fiscal year, the deficit rose to $1.4 trillion in part due to Obama’s economic stimulus plan).

What about Johnson’s methodology?

We asked three experts who closely follow the budget, and each said there is no consensus on how to attribute the overlapping budget years.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said apportioning responsibility is "really tricky."

"Looking at what has happened -- budget deficit-wise -- during the Bush and the Obama presidencies doesn’t tell the whole picture because of the differences of the fiscal year and impacts of policies that were enacted prior to either of them assuming office," Ellis wrote in an email.

Still, Ellis said he considered Johnson’s numbers correct even if the presentation was simplistic.

What’s more, there are some extra complicating factors unique to the Bush-Obama changeover, such as how best to parcel out the deficit blame for such things as Bush’s major tax cuts and Obama’s more modest tax trims, two wars that overlap their presidencies, two recessions, a Wall Street bailout that each supported, and major new programs under each (Medicare prescription drugs, stimulus).

The Great Recession of 2007-2009, which fueled deficits when tax collections fell, also overlapped the two presidencies.

Jason Peuquet, research director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said Johnson’s numbers were defensible. He suggested looking at the increase in debt -- as opposed to deficits -- because it can be tracked to the day a president starts and ends a term.

By that measure, we found a $4.9 trillion increase in gross public debt in Bush’s two terms vs. $5.4 trillion so far in Obama’s single term.

Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said "there is no good answer to your question that is going to satisfy everyone."

Our rating

Johnson’s chart showed $2 trillion in deficits under Bush and $5.3 trillion under Obama, and concluded that deficits "exploded" during the Obama administration.

The numbers check out, but comparing presidents’ budget records is not as simple as Johnson’s chart suggests. For instance, Bush owns some debatable piece of the Obama deficits.

We rate Johnson’s claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Charts on fiscal picture, websites of U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson and Johnson for Senate, accessed Sept. 19, 2012

PolitiFact, Truth-O-Meter item on Obama claim on inheriting Bush deficit,  Jan. 29, 2010

Interview with Steve Ellis, vice president, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Sept. 19, 2012

Interview with Gary Burtless, senior fellow at Brookings Institution, Sept. 19, 2012

Interview with Jason Peuquet, research director, Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Sept. 21, 2012

Interview with Mark Stephens, Johnson campaign spokesman, Sept. 20, 2012

Office of Management and Budget, Historical Tables, (see Table 1.1, Summary of Receipts, Outlays and Surpluses or Deficits), accessed Sept. 19, 2012

Treasury Department, "Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It," accessed Sept. 19, 2012

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Sen. Ron Johnson says deficits under Obama total $5.3 trillion, compared with $2 trillion under Bush

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