President Obama likes to say that raising the nation’s borrowing limit “won’t add a dime” to the federal debt, but he neglects to mention that the government already has borrowed the equivalent of more than 60 trillion dimes since he took office.
When Mr. Obama became president in January 2009, the total federal debt stood at $10.6 trillion. This week, it hit $16.7 trillion — an increase of 57 percent. In the same time frame under President George W. Bush, total federal debt rose 38 percent. Under President Clinton, it rose 32 percent.
The administration says the government will run out of authority to pay its bills by Oct. 17 unless Congress raises the debt limit again to allow more borrowing. The president portrays the move as one of simple responsibility.
“It does not increase our debt,” Mr. Obama said. “It does not grow our deficits. All it does is allow the Treasury Department to pay for what Congress has already spent.”
The president rarely mentions that he, by law, approves congressional spending, and his argument glosses over the nation’s burgeoning total debt.
“It’s certainly not the whole story,” said Alex Brill, a budget specialist at the American Enterprise Institute. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the debt held by the public in the last four or five years, and it’s projected to only get worse.”
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On Oct. 4, the debt held by the public — not including Social Security and Medicare — had risen 89.3 percent since Mr. Obama took office, according to FactCheck.org, a nonprofit project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. The administration recently projected an annual deficit of $750 billion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and $626 billion the year after that.
“At that rate, the debt owed to the public will more than double during the Obama presidency,” FactCheck said in its quarterly statistical report on Mr. Obama’s tenure in office.
Many Republican lawmakers say that is the reason spending cuts and entitlement reform should be part of the discussion to raise the debt limit.
“We are in trouble financially,” Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, said Tuesday. “We are $30 trillion in the hole, plus another $17 trillion in debt. Wouldn’t it be smart if we started addressing that problem before we blankly allow an increase in the level of the credit card?”
Mr. Obama said he won’t talk about long-term budget issues until Republicans agree to reopen the government and raise the debt limit without conditions.
The office of House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Wednesday that linking spending reforms to increases in the debt limit is “common, bipartisan practice.” The Republican leadership pointed to a Congressional Research Service report last month that said Congress has used debt-limit laws to change fiscal policy 20 times since 1917. In that same 96-year span, the nation’s debt limit has been raised 103 times.
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In the increasingly contentious showdown with Congress, Mr. Obama also is fond of pointing out that budget deficits — the annual red ink that contributes to the total debt — have been falling at the fastest pace in 60 years. That’s true largely because spending rose dramatically in his first term as the administration tried to blunt the impact of the Great Recession.
Although a “grand bargain” on spending and entitlements eluded the president and congressional Republicans in 2011, Mr. Brill said, it is the kind of approach still needed to get the debt under control.
“It’s logical and appropriate what we’re hearing from many Republicans that we need to not only deal with the debt limit itself but we need to deal with the underlying cause of this pressure to increase the debt,” he said. “That means we need to deal with entitlements.”