Obama's Blank Check

Recently, you may have heard that President Obama has run up more debt in one term than George W. Bush ran up in two.  Let's check that out.  On Inauguration Day 2001, Bush inherited a debt of $5.7T (see chart).


The data for this chart came from this Treasury Department webpage.  Notice that the first two lines are for Inauguration Days, and the third is for the ides of March, so beware.

Eight years later, Obama inherited a debt of $10.6T. So, under Bush, the debt of the federal government went up by $4.9T.  That record was equaled under Obama on March 15, 2012.

Those numbers, however, don't tell the full story about the national debt.  That's because the above figures are for the so-called "total" (or "gross") debt.  The debt that folks should worry about is the "debt held by the public," the hard debt, which is what we really owe.  So let's compare the growth of the hard debt under Bush and Obama.

The Treasury webpage used for our chart doesn't list the hard debt for 2001.  But no matter -- let's take the lowest hard debt number from Bush's first year (Table 7.1 of Historical Tables), which will make Obama look less bad.  That number is the "debt held by the public" on September 30, 2001, the end of fiscal year 2001, the last year with a surplus.  The hard debt on that day was $3.3T and was $6.3T at the end of Bush's presidency.  So Bush racked up just shy of $3T in hard debt, whereas Obama had racked up more than $4.5T of hard debt by...March 15, 2012.

In the same time it took him to equal Bush's "total debt" -- less than three years and two months -- Obama surpassed Bush's hard debt by a factor of 1.5+.  Nevertheless, the media usually bruits the "total debt" when the real debt grew much faster.

But comparing presidents on debt is at best an incomplete analysis.  Debt is a function of revenue and spending, which Congress, not the president, controls.  All this is lost on, or ignored by, those who credit/blame presidents rather than Congress for the debt.  One such is Howard Dean.  In a recent segment on The Kudlow Report ("$5.3 Trillion Tax Hike?"), Dean said this:

I think we ought to get spending down to where Bill Clinton had it and put taxes back up to where Bill Clinton had it and then we'd have a balanced budget and a big surplus, just like Bill Clinton did, the only president since Lyndon Johnson to balance the budget. Only Democrats balance budgets, do you know that? [Italics added.]

"Only Democrats balance budgets"?  Dean has repeated such hooey ad nauseam.  It rests on the false notion that presidents are responsible for budgets, even though budgets are legislation.  But using Dean's own criterion, Eisenhower balanced the budget, as did the three GOP presidents of 1920s, which includes Hoover.  So Dean's statement is not only false; it's ignorant.  (Don't blame Larry, though.  One of the strengths of his show is the variety of guests he books, which include progressives, like Dean, for balance.  It airs weeknights on CNBC at 7 p.m. Eastern.)

If one accepts the position of Democrats like Mr. Dean -- that presidents are responsible for the budget and therefore for debt -- then Clinton's Republican Congress had nothing to do with the surpluses from 1998 through 2001.  And not only that, but Democrat Congresses aren't responsible for current trillion-dollar deficits.  Pretty slick if you can get away with it.  But Senator Jeff Sessions isn't buying this nonsense; in The Washington Times on April 26, he writes:

This Sunday marks exactly three years since the Democratic majority in the Senate last passed a budget, on April 29, 2009. During that time, the federal government has spent $10.4 trillion and added another $4.5 trillion to our total debt.

Adopting a budget is not optional. It is required by law. Under the 1974 Congressional Budget Act, the Senate must move a budget out of the Budget Committee by April 1 of every year and adopt a budget resolution on the floor by April 15. [Link added.]

The House has completed its budget work each of the past two years since the GOP attained a majority in that chamber. By contrast, the Democratic Senate is continuing its open defiance of budget law for the third year in a row.

It appears likely that President Obama will have signed only one budget in his term.  Yet he does not use his bully pulpit to shame his Democrat Senate into doing their duty.  Why should he when Congress is willing to give him a blank check by periodically raising the debt ceiling?

Our missing federal budget is just one more index of our national decline.  America drifts.

Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

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