Who’s Really Responsible For Our National Debt?

It’s popular for the Republican Party to blame our $16.7 trillion debt on President Obama. Certainly, like all presidents, he has some responsibility for it. But a much larger share of the responsibility goes to President Reagan, President George H.W. Bush and, most especially, President George W. Bush.

You see, the increase in spending in 2009 following the economic collapse of 2008 should rightfully be attributed to the Bush administration. That’s because the 2009 deficit was the result of a spending bill, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), authorized by Congress in October of 2008 and signed by President Bush months before Obama took office. In fact, spending in the first year of any administration is always the result of the previous administration. Properly credit 2009 spending to Republicans, and you’ll discover that President Obama has been responsible for the lowest spending increases since Eisenhower. Similarly, he is responsible for the most rapid cuts to our deficit in more than 50 years!

While it’s true that the debt has increased 18.5 percent since Obama became president, as discussed, he should not be held responsible for most of that increase. Even so, it’s still less than the 20.7 percent increase in national debt that accrued during George W. Bush’s second term. And it’s only marginally greater than the 13 percent increase during Bush Sr’s term, and the 11.3 percent increase during Reagan’s first term.

A better measure of Obama’s spending comes courtesy of Rick Ungar, a contributor to Forbes Magazine (hardly a bastion of liberalism). According to Ungar, in President Obama’s first term, overall government spending grew just 1.4 percent as compared to 7.3 percent in George W. Bush’s first term and 8.1 percent in Bush’s second term!

So why do Republicans continue to place the blame on Obama? First, it’s a matter of political convenience to portray Obama as a “tax and spend” liberal. Second, the narrative is relatively believable since government spending skyrocketed during the first year of the Obama administration. Third, the media has done a very poor job of countering Republican misinformation.

In order to truly understand the federal debt, you have to look at the history of US borrowing.

Following the Revolutionary War, the US debt stood at roughly 35 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It again reached that level following the Civil War. In both instances, the debt was brought down by a combination of increased revenues and spending restraint. During WW I, the US debt again rose to approximately 35 percent of GDP. Before it could be paid down, our economy collapsed leading to the Great Depression. That was quickly followed by WWII. The two events caused the debt to soar to more than 117 percent of GDP. But, through a combination of post-war prosperity and income tax rates of up to 91 percent during the Eisenhower administration, the debt was again brought under control.

By the end of the Carter administration, the national debt had been reduced to 32.5 percent of GDP.

President Reagan’s expansive military spending during the Cold War once again caused the debt to soar, reaching more than 66.1 percent GDP. Under Clinton, it was reduced to 56.4 percent of GDP. Then, under George W. Bush, two wars (one of which was a war of choice) and lax government oversight led to the Great Recession – the worst economic calamity in nearly 80 years. At the same time, a Republican-led Congress cut taxes (and, therefore, revenue), particularly for the wealthy.

President Obama inherited a debt of more than 84 percent of GDP, along with a worldwide economic collapse, double-digit unemployment, spiraling health care costs, two wars estimated to have cost more than $6 trillion, a Congress that refused to rescind the Bush tax cuts, and a uniquely obstructionist Republican Party.

All of this was roughly the equivalent of combining the costs of World War II and the Great Depression without the primary mechanism needed to reduce the debt – taxes!

President Obama was left with few choices. He had to stimulate the economy through loans and tax cuts in order to put people back to work. This led to reduced revenue. He had to wind down the war of choice in Iraq as quickly as possible. He needed to stabilize the war in Afghanistan that had been allowed to languish under Bush at a cost of $1 million per soldier per year. Moreover, since few Americans had been asked to sacrifice for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, unlike World War II, they felt no need to pay for the wars through increased taxes. Indeed, even though federal income taxes were at a 50-year low, extremists funded by billionaires created the TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party.

All of this led to the growth of our debt, which now equals nearly 102 percent of GDP.

Certainly, this debt is of great concern. But it’s not the short-term crisis Teapublicans would have you believe. (It’s the equivalent of a family earning $100,000/year holding a $102,000 mortgage.) And, without modest tax increases, there are few ways to reduce the debt.

One is to grow the economy, and according to most economists, including Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, the economy is on the verge of significant, sustained growth if the nitwits in Congress would just get out of the way and stop dragging us from one self-inflicted crisis to another.

Two is to make cuts without adding to unemployment. (For example, we squander tens of billions each year on weapons systems that our military doesn’t even want, but Congress refuses to defund them because doing so would cost jobs.) And, once the economy shows sustained growth, programs such as food stamps can be cut – especially if we raise the minimum wage to reduce the large number of working poor who have little choice but to rely on government assistance.

In summary, contrary to what Teapublicans would have you believe, our national debt is not Obama’s debt. It’s the result of decades of wars, tax cuts, regulatory indifference, a struggling worldwide economy, out-of-control health care costs, greedy corporations that off-shore both jobs and profits, and a dysfunctional Congress that not only fails to help the economy. It makes decisions that are actually preventing economic recovery!

As a matter of fact, the Tea Party seems determined to force our nation into default. And, like the debt, they would have you believe that it’s all Obama’s fault.