The claim: Trump increased the debt 'far more than any president in history'
The post criticized Republicans for "attacks on the poor and the sick with the threat of catastrophic debt default," then made a claim about former President Donald Trump:
"Trump increased that debt far more than any president in history," the post says in part. "Under Trump, Republicans − and Democrats − had no objection to raising the debt ceiling three times."
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries shared a similar claim on Twitter that garnered over 11,000 likes. A version of that post was posted on Facebook by the left-wing account Occupy Democrats and shared more than 900 times.
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Our rating: False
The total federal debt increased more under the Obama administration in terms of raw dollars than any other president, according to government data. Experts say it is difficult to determine how much debt one president is responsible for since spending and policies can carry over from one administration to the next.
Obama incurred more debt than any other president
The post comes after weeks of standstill between President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy over the issue of raising the debt ceiling, which limits how much the government can borrow, as USA TODAY reported.
But contrary to the post’s claim, the total federal debt increased more under former President Barack Obama than it did under the Trump administration, according to David Primo, a political science and business administration professor at the University of Rochester.
There are different ways of measuring debt, experts said.
Using Treasury Department data, the total public debt, which includes intragovernmental holdings and public debt, increased by approximately $7.8 trillion from the start of Trump’s presidency on Jan. 20, 2017, to when he left office on Jan. 19, 2021. Under Obama, however, the public debt increased by about $9.3 trillion from when he was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2009, to when he left office on Jan. 19, 2017.
Some experts look at debt accumulated each fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1 of a given calendar year and ends Sept. 30 of the next year, according to Primo. That yields similar results.
At the end of fiscal year 2016 − three months before Trump took office − the debt was about $19.5 trillion, according to historical fiscal year debt data from the Office of Management and Budget. That number increased to about $26.9 trillion at the end of fiscal year 2020 three months before Trump left office, marking a $7.4 trillion increase.
However, at the end of fiscal year 2008 before Obama took office, the debt was about $10 trillion and increased to about $19.5 trillion at the end of fiscal year 2016 before Obama left office, netting approximately a $9.5 trillion increase, according to the data.
There are caveats to these comparisons: Trump was only in office for four years while Obama was in office for eight years. The data for the federal fiscal year overlaps. And in both cases, the debt is measured using the nominal amount added each year, so it doesn't account for inflation.
Some economists believe the debt-to-GDP ratio is a better metric for gauging debt increase because the nominal levels of debt do not matter as much as how much debt the nation has as a share of its output, Primo said. Which president ranks first in this category would depend on the method of calculation used but Trump would not have the highest figures regardless, Primo said.
"In the post-WWII era, the increases in debt as a percentage of GDP were highest during and right after WWII," Primo said. "In the modern era, it’s still not Trump."
Experts say it is hard to blame any one president on rising debt
There are several reasons why it is difficult to cast the blame for increasing debt on any one president, experts said.
Debt increases are due to policies jointly agreed to by Congress and the president, so Congress bears some responsibility, according to Primo.
For instance, Obama signed into law a 2009 stimulus package passed by Congress, which extended former President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, and a tax extenders omnibus bill at the end of 2015, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Both policies worsened debt.
When Trump was in office, he signed into law the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which lowered statutory tax rates on all taxable income levels and made debt soar, according to the Tax Policy Center and ProPublica.
“The country takes on debt anytime its outlays exceed its revenues,” Primo said. “This can occur due to one-time expenses such as the COVID-19 relief package or to structural changes to the budget, such as tax cuts or the creation of new government programs. In the long run, the biggest drivers of debt increases will be due to entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.”
All presidents also inherit spending from previous administrations, noted William Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
For instance, the Affordable Care Act implemented under Obama carried over to Trump’s presidency. The act expands the Medicaid program and provides health insurance to low-income consumers.
USA TODAY reached out to the social media users who shared the claim for comment but did not immediately receive a response.
Our fact-check sources:
David Primo, May 23-30, Email exchange with USA TODAY
William Hoagland, May 23-30, Email exchange with USA TODAY
Steve Ellis, May 24-26 Email exchange with USA TODAY
Treasury Department, accessed May 26, Debt to the Penny
Office of Management and Budget, accessed May 26, Federal debt data
Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, July 25, 2016, Has President Obama Doubled the National Debt?
Tax Policy Center, accessed May 30, Briefing Book
Associated Press, May 18, FACT FOCUS: Who’s to blame for the national debt? It’s more complicated than one culprit
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Obama increased federal debt more than Trump | Fact check