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National Debt Under Obama


President Obama Holds News Conference Before Leaving For Hawaii

President Obama added at least $5 trillion to the debt.

Photo: Alex Wong//Getty Images

The Economic Stimulus Act added $858 billion to the debt to build roads and bridges and create jobs.

Photo: Allan Baxter/Gety Images
Air Force Jet

Obama's spending on the War on Terror added another $602 billion to the debt.

Photo by MPI/Getty Images

In his first four years of office, President Obama increased the U.S. debt by $5.073 trillion. The largest contribution was the Obama tax cuts, which added $858 billion to the debt in 2011 and 2012. The next largest was the Economic Stimulus Act, which added $787 billion between 2009-2012. It cut taxes, extended unemployment benefits, and funded job-creating public works projects. Both were attempts to stimulate the economy after the 2008 financial crisis

In addition, Obama increased defense spending to more than $800 billion a year. In fact, his security budget request of $895 billion in FY 2011 set a new record. Even though troops were withdrawn from Iraq in 2012, and Osama bin Laden was eliminated in 2011, Obama requested $851 billion for security spending in his FY 2013 budget -- more than in his first year in office. Although Obama abandoned the phrase "War on Terror," he spent $602 billion -- almost as much as the $850 billion Bush spent in eight years.

What about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? It didn't add anything to the debt in Obama's first term. That's because most of its costs occur in 2014, after the health insurance exchanges are set up and coverage is extended for more low-income people. In fact, tax increases will offset costs to the tune of $104 billion between 2010-2019. For more, see Obamacare Costs and CBO Report on the PPACA.

There were some other events that Obama faced over which he had no control. There was less Federal income, thanks to decreased tax receipts during the recession. Mandatory spending continued to increase, thanks to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Year by Year Breakout:

  • FY 2009 - Although this was actually President Bush's last budget, it was being implemented during Obama's first year. Congress agreed to add the first year's worth of spending from the Economic Stimulus Act to this. That $253 billion accrues to Obama.
  • FY 2010 - Obama's first budget created a $1.293 trillion deficit.
  • FY 2012 - The deficit was the largest in history, at $1.327 trillion.
  • FY 2011 - It contributed $1.299 trillion to the debt.
  • FY 2013 - This was the first Obama budget where the deficit, $901 billion, was less than $1 trillion.

Why Do Some Say Obama Really Added $6 Trillion?

CBS News reported that Obama added $6 trillion to the debt. On January 20, 2009, the day he was sworn in, the debt was $10.626 trillion. By January 20, 2013, it was $16.687 trillion -- a difference of $6 trillion.

However, it's a little misleading to hold Obama (or any other President) accountable for the deficit incurred during his first year of office. That's because the budget for that fiscal year was already set by the previous President. Bush's last budget (FY 2009) created a deficit of $1.16 trillion, even without the spending on the Economic Stimulus Act. Most of this addition to the debt occurred after the new President took office, and so should not be attributed to Obama.

Obama Debt vs Bush Debt:

President Bush added $3.294 trillion to the debt in eight years thanks to the Bush tax cuts and the War on Terror, both of which were responses to events that happened in his first year in office. Bush inherited the 2001 recession, which he combated by passing the EGTRRA. It attempted to stimulate the economy by lowering tax rates for most families, which resulted in tax rebate checks being mailed out through that summer. The recession officially ended in November, as economic growth started to improve.

However, in September Bush had to respond to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He asked Congress for an additional $33.8 billion to find the perpetrators in Afghanistan, and establish Homeland Security. As a result, his FY 2002 budget had a $158 billion deficit.

Although the recession was over, unemployment continued to rise peaking at 6% in June 2003. To boost business hiring, Bush gave companies a tax break with JGTRRA. He also initiated a second war that year, this time in Iraq. Combined the two wars cost $53 billion that year. The tax breaks and increased spending added $378 billion to the FY 2003 deficit.

In the next two years, Bush added $731 billion to the debt. Part of this was decreased revenue, and part was increased military spending, including $012.7 billion for the War on Terror.

Bush's second term was an extension of his policies in the first, adding $2.027 to the debt. Total spending on defense and security totaled $2.7 trillion, including $591 billion for the War on Terror alone. (Updated March 4, 2013)

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