Politifact rates Pelosi Chart – Pants on Fire!
A reader recently pointed us to a post on the website of MoveOn.org, a liberal group. The post features a bar graph titled, “Who Increased the Debt?” that offers figures for the past five presidents:
We can see why a liberal group would tout such numbers, since — if accurate — they offer powerful counterevidence to the claims by conservatives that President Barack Obama has been a spendthrift who’s set the nation on an unsustainable fiscal path.
But the reader who sent it to us was surprised to see the debt increase under Obama was so small. So we decided to check the numbers.
The chart actually comes from a Flickr page belonging to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who posted it on May 5, 2011. Specifically, the chart tracks “percent increase in public debt” for the five presidents during the following time periods — January 1981 to January 1989 (Reagan), January 1989 to January 1993 (George H.W. Bush), January 1993 to January 2001 (Clinton), January 2001 to January 2009 (George W. Bush), and January 2009 to April 2011 (Obama).
We checked with Pelosi’s office to see what data they used to assemble the chart. They referred us to the U.S. Treasury’s “Debt to the Penny Calculator.”
First, we should note that we interpreted the caption in Pelosi’s chart that reads “percent increase in public debt” to mean public debt, not gross federal debt. Public debt is debt held by the public, whereas gross federal debt includes both publicly held debt and debt held by the government, such as money in the Social Security trust fund.
Despite what the chart’s label suggested, the data we received from Pelosi’s office made clear that they had been using the gross federal debt number. So we’ll start with that figure.
We can quickly dispense with the figures for Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The “Debt to the Penny” calculator doesn’t go back further than 1993, but we were able to estimate the figures for debt under Reagan and the elder Bush by using data from the Office of Management and Budget. OMB’s numbers are calculated somewhat differently than Treasury’s, but the percentage increases were close enough to what the chart said that we’re not going to quibble over them. OMB has debt under Reagan increasing by 186 percent (the chart had said 189 percent) and by 54 percent under George H.W. Bush (compared to the 55 percent in the chart).
Instead, we’ll focus on the numbers for Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
From the online calculator, we requested the daily debt totals since 1993 and picked out the ones closest to the inauguration dates of those three presidents, as well as the end of the month of April 2011. Here’s what we came with for gross federal debt:
January 20, 1993 (end of George H.W. Bush and beginning of Clinton): $4.188 trillion
January 19, 2001 (end of Clinton and beginning of George W. Bush): $5.728 trillion
January 20, 2009 (end of George W. Bush and beginning of Obama): $10.627 trillion
April 29, 2011 (closing date of the chart): $14.288 trillion
This allows us to determine how much the debt rose under each president:
Under Clinton: Increase of $1.54 trillion, or 37 percent
Under George W. Bush: Increase of $4.899 trillion, or 86 percent
Under Obama: Increase of $3.661 trillion, or 34 percent
So we can dispense with Clinton — in the chart, his figure is correct. But the chart is significantly off for both Bush and Obama. We found Bush to have an 86 percent increase, not 115 percent as the chart said. And we found the debt under Obama to be up by 34 percent, more than double the 16 percent cited in the chart.
Karl Gotthardt- Associate Editor had this to say:
Obama’s debt was accumulated in less than on term and has now reached $15 Trillion, which is equal to 100% of the GDP. He has just asked for a debt ceiling increase of another $1.2 Trillion, which will move the debt above $16 Trillion in his first term, should the country be so unfortunate for him to get another term. The “Class Warriors” are misleading the public. One should expect more from a President and his minions.