Did Obama Double the National Debt?

Fact-Checking a Popular Email Claim

President Obama Speaks At The Fiscal Responsibility Summit
President Obama Speaks At The Fiscal Responsibility Summit. Getty Images

A widely circulated email that began making the rounds in 2009 indirectly claims President Barack Obama tried to double the national debt in one year, presumably in his first budget proposal after taking office.

The email invokes the name of Obama's predecessor, former President George W. Bush, in trying to make its point about the Democratic president and the growing national debt.

Let's take a look at the email:

"If George W. Bush had proposed to double the national debt - which had taken more than two centuries to accumulate - in one year, would you have approved?
"If George W. Bush had then proposed to double the debt again within 10 years, would you have approved?"

The email concludes: "So, tell me again, what is it about Obama that makes him so brilliant and impressive? Can't think of anything? Don't worry. He's done all this in 6 months-so you'll have three years and six months to come up with an answer!"

Doubling Down on the National Debt?

Is there any truth to the claim Obama proposed to double the national debt in one year?

Hardly.

Even if Obama went on the most lavish spending spree imaginable, it would have been pretty difficult to double what had been the total publicly held debt, or national debt, of more than $6.3 trillion in January of 2009.

It just didn't happen.

What about the second question?

Did Obama propose to double the national debt within 10 years?

According to nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projections, Obama's first budget proposal was, in fact, expected to double the country's publicly held debt over the course of a decade.

Perhaps this is the source of confusion in the chain email.

The CBO projected that Obama's proposed budget would increase the national debt from $7.5 trillion - about 53 percent of the nation's Gross Domestic Product - at the end of 2009 to $20.3 trillion - or 90 percent of the GDP - by the end of 2020.

The publicly held debt, also called the "national debt," includes all monies owed by the United States government to persons and institutions outside the government.

National Debt Nearly Doubled Under Bush

If you're looking for other presidents who nearly doubled the national debt, perhaps Mr. Bush is also a culprit. According to the Treasury, the publicly held debt was $3.3 trillion when he took office in 2001, and more than $6.3 trillion when he left office in 2009.

That's an increase of nearly 91 percent.

CBO Projects Debt to Almost Double by 2048

In June 2018, the CBO projected that without major changes in government spending, the national debt will nearly double as a share of the economy over the next 30 years.

Currently (2018) equivalent to 78 percent of the GDP, the GBO projects it will hit 100 percent of GDP by 2030 and 152 percent by 2048. At this point, the debt as a share of the GDP would exceed the records set during World War II.

While government spending on discretionary or optional programs is expected to remain steady or even decrease, the growth in the debt will continue to be driven by health care costs and increased spending on entitlement spending, like Medicare and Social Security as ever-more people reach retirement age.

In addition, the CBO projects that President Trump’s tax cuts will add to the debt, especially if Congress makes them permanent. The tax cuts, currently in effect for 10 years, are expected to reduce the government’s revenue by $1.8 trillion through 2028, with even greater reductions in revenue if the tax cuts are made permanent.

"Large and growing federal debt over the coming decades would hurt the economy and constrain future budget policy," reported the CBO. "The amount of debt that is projected under the extended baseline would reduce national saving and income in the long term; increase the government's interest costs, putting more pressure on the rest of the budget; limit lawmakers' ability to respond to unforeseen events; and increase the likelihood of a fiscal crisis."

Updated by Robert Longley