Presidential debate 101: Did Obama really double the deficit?

During the arithmetical dodge ball that constituted much of the first debate, Mitt Romney said the US deficit 'doubled' under Obama. In fact, it has declined, though it is still more than $1 trillion.

Charlie Neibergall/AP/File
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama shake hands after the first presidential debate at the University of Denver on Wednesday.

Washington’s red ink was a big topic in the presidential debate on Wednesday night. That’s unsurprising – it’s an important issue, and the federal government is spending a lot more than it's taking in. But President Obama and GOP nominee Mitt Romney kept throwing numbers at each other like they were playing arithmetical dodge ball. For those without accounting skills it was hard to keep up.

So as part of our effort to explain some of the discussion we’ll address this point: Mitt Romney said the deficit has doubled under President Obama. Is that right?

Well, let’s look at the numbers. When President Obama took office in 2009 the deficit was already running at close to a record-setting pace. At the end of that fiscal year, it was $1.4 trillion. That’s “trillion” with a “T”. Ouch.

Fiscal 2012 ended on Sept. 30. The final figures aren’t yet in, but at the moment the Congressional Budget Office projects the deficit will be ... (drum roll) $1.1 trillion. So smaller. Not doubled at all.

In 2010 and 2011 the deficit was a bit higher, at around $1.3 trillion each year. That’s still below the 2009 figure, certainly not double. Measured as a share of the Gross National Product, which is how economists prefer to do it, the deficit has declined during Obama’s term in office. We won’t give you the percentages because they’re just more numbers and we’re not economists ourselves.

So what did Romney say on Wednesday, exactly? He asserted this: “The president said he’d cut the deficit in half. Unfortunately, he doubled it. Trillion-dollar deficits for the last four years.”

As we’ve seen, the middle part of that isn’t true. The deficit hasn’t doubled. But the trillion-dollar-four-years part is true. So is the first part of Romney’s charge. During Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009, the president pledged to halve the deficit during his first term. Looking at the above numbers you can see that he hasn’t.

It’s possible that on Wednesday night Romney misspoke or misunderstood something in his briefing book. His advisers may have wanted him to say that the US debt, not the deficit, had increased sharply during Obama’s term.

The deficit is the nation’s annual shortfall. The debt is the shortfalls of all years added together and rolled up in a big pile of red numbers that at this point is reaching toward the sky.

On George W. Bush’s last day in office the US public debt was $10.626 trillion. On Oct. 5, 2012 (you can see the debt to the penny at the Treasury’s Bureau of Public Debt website) the total debt outstanding was about $16.161 trillion.

So as you see, the debt has gone up a lot during Obama’s time in office. About 52 percent, if you run the numbers. That’s still not doubled, though.

Of course, in this instance the numbers are simply continuing an upwards trend that began under President Bush. The debt went up about $4.9 trillion during Bush’s time in office.

Obama has been quick to blame his predecessor (plus the bad economy) for much of the nation’s debt problem. During Wednesday’s debate he said Bush used credit to pay for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as the Medicare prescription drug program.

This analysis of the roots of the deficit problem is itself only partly true, as we said when we looked at it in depth in a previous post.

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