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During a swing through New Hampshire in October 2013, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., hammered home her concern about the country’s growing national debt.
When she met with about 60 people at a town hall forum in Hudson, N.H., Ayotte stood beside a national debt counter projected onto a screen. It ticked away each new dollar added to the country’s debts, which recently topped $17 trillion.
Ayotte said both parties bear responsibility, and that the debt can only be addressed through bipartisan cooperation.
"It took two parties to get us into debt. It’s going to take two parties to get us out of debt," she said. "Under President (George W. Bush), we added $4.9 trillion to the debt. Under President Obama, since he’s been in office, we’ve added $6.5 trillion to the debt," she said.
"I think all of us sort of on a gut basis understand why the $17 trillion debt is bad for the country, because at home, if we didn’t pay our bills, eventually we get to a point where if our bills end up being more than we’re taking in, we go bankrupt."
Throughout his first term, Obama was saddled with criticism that deficit spending has ballooned under his watch. PolitiFact has checked a variety of these claims in the past, but with Ayotte again drawing attention to the national debt, we thought it would be useful to take another look.
It’s somewhat tricky to calculate how much money Obama is responsible for adding to the national debt. The point at which Obama starts to bear responsibility for debt increases is a matter of dispute.
Normally, presidents inherit budget policies from their predecessors, but because Obama took office during an economic free-fall, several big-ticket budgetary items, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program, could plausibly be ascribed to a combination of the two presidents. (See a full discussion here and here.)
However, the simplest way to analyze Ayotte’s claim is to look at the size of the debt on the day Obama took office -- January 20, 2009 -- and compare it to the debt level today. This is what Ayotte was getting at when she cited the increase in the national debt "since he’s been in office."
Another challenge in assessing Ayotte’s claim is the fact that there are at least two ways to measure the national debt.
"Public debt" is one measurement commonly used by the U.S. Department of Treasury. It includes all debt borrowed by the federal government and held by investors through Treasury notes and other securities.
Another commonly cited figure is the country’s total debt, or gross federal debt. This number is higher. It includes public debt plus government debts, such as the money borrowed from the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to fund government operations, which are effectively government IOUs to itself.
Here, the context in which Ayotte made her claim is helpful in determining whether she was referring to public debt or total debt. Before discussing Obama, Ayotte said that former president Bush added $4.9 trillion to the national debt during his time in office.
Bush did in fact increase the national debt by $4.9 trillion if you measure by total debt, or gross federal debt. For this reason, we’ll assume Ayotte was also speaking about total debt when she discussed the $6.5 trillion increase under Obama.
Crunching the numbers
On Jan. 20, 2009, the date of Obama's inauguration, the debt held by the public stood at roughly $6.307 trillion, according to the Treasury Department’s "Debt to the Penny" calculator. The total debt, or gross federal debt, was about $10.627 trillion.
Next, we need to calculate how much the debt increased as of Oct. 24, 2013 -- the date Ayotte made her remark in Hudson. By that date, the debt held by the public was about $12.122 trillion and total debt had climbed to nearly $17.1 trillion.
So, since Obama took office, debt held by the public increased by about $5.815 trillion, and total debt increased by about $6.451 trillion.
So she was right on the money. Ayotte overstated the increase by about $49 billion, which is a lot of money, but it’s a tiny fraction of the country’s multi-trillion dollar debt.
One final note: On claims where a speaker takes credit or assigns blame for a statistic, we usually take a two-part approach to rating the claim’s accuracy. Is the number right? And is the credit or blame correctly assigned?
In this case, Obama doesn’t deserve full "blame" for the debt growth on his watch, since about two-thirds of the annual deficit during his term has been from entitlements and interest. Entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, are less susceptible to a president’s policy preferences than discretionary spending that Congress must approve on an annual basis. Entitlements are also more heavily driven by demographic factors, such as the aging of the population, which is also out of any president’s control. Meanwhile, a sizable share of the interest being paid today is paying off debts accumulated under previous presidents.
That said, we’re not going to dock Ayotte for how she assigned blame, because her claim was carefully evenhanded. Even as she applied "blame" to Obama, she said the same applied to Bush. Her statement that "it took two parties to get us into debt. It’s going to take two parties to get us out of debt" is distinctly bipartisan in tone.
Ayotte said that the country has added $6.5 trillion to the national debt since Obama took office and $4.9 trillion under Bush. When measuring by total debt, she’s correct on both counts. We rate her claim True.
Kelly Ayotte, comments at a town hall event in Hudson, N.H., Oct. 24, 2013
PolitiFact New Jersey, Obama has added more to national debt than the previous 43 presidents combined, chain e-mail states, May 4, 2012
PolitiFact, Mitt Romney says Obama has "racked up as much debt as almost all of the other presidents combined," Dec. 16, 2011
PolitiFact New Hampshire, By the end of his first term, President Obama will have added as much debt as all the prior 43 presidents combined, July 10, 2011
U.S. Department of the Treasury, Debt to the Penny for Oct. 24, 2013, accessed Oct. 30, 2013
U.S. Department of the Treasury, Debt to the Penny for Jan. 20, 2009, accessed Oct. 30, 2013
U.S. Government Accountability Office, Federal Debt Basics, accessed Oct. 31, 2013
Email interview with Liz Johnson, spokeswoman for Kelly Ayotte, Oct. 31, 2013
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