Earlier this week I got a couple of e-mails about a chart du jour attempting to argue that Barack Obama increased the debt the least among the last five Presidents, and wanted to get a response from me. Frankly, the argument seemed so absurd after Obama’s three massive budget deficits and his failed Porkulus spending that I assumed the chart came from a fringe lefty desperate for a defense of Obama. As it turns out, I was right, in a way — it came from Nancy Pelosi’s office. Here’s the chart:
Right off the bat, one can see a basic problem in this chart, which is that we’re comparing apples and oranges. Reagan, Clinton, and Bush 43 all served for eight years, while Obama had barely cleared two years by the time this chart’s data was published in May 2011. Even if this was accurately depicting the data, it would still be a misleading graphic comparison.
As two different fact-checkers have found, though, it doesn’t accurately depict the data. Politifact gives Pelosi and her allies a “Pants On Fire” rating for pushing this chart as reality:
Whoever put the chart together used the date for Jan. 20, 2010 — which is exactly one year to the day after Obama was sworn in — rather than his actual inauguration date. We know this because Treasury says the debt for Jan. 20, 2010, was $12.327 trillion, which is the exact number cited on the supporting document that Pelosi’s office gave us.
However this error happened, it effectively took one year of rapidly escalating debt out of Obama’s column and put it into Bush’s, significantly skewing the numbers. …
Not only did the chart say it was using one statistic and then use another, it also cherry-picked the one that showed the comparison in a more favorable light. According to OMB statistics, public debt rose by 70 percent under Bush, 16 percentage points more slowly than gross federal debt did. And according to the Treasury, the public debt rose by 53 percent under Obama, compared with the 34 percent rise in gross federal debt.
Those numbers would have shown the two presidents much closer in their debt creation records — and that’s without even adjusting for the vastly different lengths of time in office.
Let’s not forget that the Democrats kept Bush out of the loop on the 2009 budget, too, by passing continuing resolutions until Obama took office. He signed the massive omnibus bill passed by a Democrat-controlled Congress in March 2009 to finish that budget. And who ran the House of Representatives at that time, and for the last two years of the Bush presidency? Why, none other than Nancy Pelosi, that’s who.
Politifact then points out that deficits as a percentage of GDP is actually the better measurement, and recalculates the debt on those terms. Guess who winds up the winner?
Reagan: Up 14.9 percentage points
George H.W. Bush: Up 7.1 percentage points
Clinton: Down 13.4 percentage points
George W. Bush: Up 5.6 percentage points
Obama: Up 21.9 percentage points (through December 2010 only)
So by this measurement — potentially a more important one — Obama is the undisputed debt king of the last five presidents, rather than the guy who added a piddling amount to the debt, as Pelosi’s chart suggested. Of course, all this goes to show that statistics can be used — and misused — to bolster almost any argument.
Politifact isn’t the only media fact-checker working on this chart. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post gave Pelosi four Pinocchios, even for her amended chart:
If the chart actually used public debt rather than gross debt, it would have put Obama and George W. Bush virtually in the same league — 60 percent increase (as of September 2011) for Obama versus 70 percent for Bush — even though Bush served as president much longer.
But the biggest problem is that this is just dumb math. What really counts is not the raw debt numbers, but the size of the debt as a percentage of the gross domestic product. The GDP is the broadest measure of the national economy and directly indicates the nation’s ability to service its debts. In fact, the White House budget office historical tables portray much of the data as a percentage of GDP, because that is the best way to truly compare such numbers over time.
If the chart were recast to show how much the debt went up as a percentage of GDP, it would look pretty bad for Obama after not even three years in office. In fact, Obama does almost twice as poorly as Reagan — and four times worse than George W. Bush.
But the fact remains that under basic economic measures, not phony ones, his record on the growth of the national debt is the worst of recent presidents.
Of course, as I often argue, the greater share of responsibility for debt growth belongs to Congress, not presidents, although it’s no secret why Pelosi would want to distract people from that measure. Unfortunately, that argument backfired, as it gave us all another opportunity to focus on how much damage Obama has done in a much shorter time frame to the nation’s finances. Great job, Congresswoman!