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Who’s Responsible for the National Debt?

Annie just noted that the national debt hit a (somewhat meaningless) milestone this week, topping $13 trillion yesterday. As a quick addendum, it’s worth pointing out which presidents are most responsible for running up the national tab. We’ll go back five. (All numbers come from the Treasury Department, found here and here.)

  • Ronald Reagan (1981-1989): Inherited roughly $908 billion in debt, and took it up to $2.6 trillion. Change: +186%.
  • George H.W. Bush (1989-1993): Took Reagan’s $2.6 trillion up to $4.2 trillion. Change: +62%.
  • Bill Clinton (1993-2001): Took Bush’s $4.2 trillion up to $5.7 trillion. Change: +36%.
  • George W. Bush (2001-2009): Took Clinton’s $5.7 trillion up above $10.6 trillion. Change: +86%.
  • Barack Obama (2009-2010): So far, has taken Bush’s $10.6 trillion up to $13 trillion. Change: +23%.

This is no defense of the current levels of deficit spending, which are clearly unsustainable and need some serious trimming. But it’s a good reminder that all that talk about Republicans being more fiscally responsible than Democrats doesn’t quite hold up when confronted with the real numbers.

*Note: This post has been updated so that the figures from 1993 onward reflect the debt on the day that the listed presidents were sworn in, as opposed to the month that they were elected. Because the Treasury Department doesn’t keep such daily debt figures before 1993, the numbers surrounding Reagan’s term ($908 billion and $2.6 trillion) reflect the debt several months before he was sworn in and several months before he left office, respectively. *

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