MSNBC's Ratigan Claims National Debt Mostly Run Up Prior to Obama, by Republicans

July 26th, 2011 4:54 PM

During a roundtable discussion on the debt ceiling deadlock on his July 26 program, MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan, egged on by a former Durbin and Biden staffer-turned-lobbyist, argued that the bulk of the national debt was run up prior to the time President Barack Obama entered office, by Republicans:


DYLAN RATIGAN, host: I am horrified by what I am watching--

JIMMY WILLIAMS, lobbyist: Who ran up a majority of this debt?

RATIGAN: Well, a majority of the debt was run up prior to this president.


RATIGAN: But the reality--

WILLIAMS: Who controlled the Congress?

RATIGAN: The Republicans!

WILLIAMS: So I'm pretty sure that the same people called the Tea Party ran up the damn debt!

RATIGAN: But that's the political genius of what they're doing!

It's a fun partisan bumper sticker, but it's woefully misleading.

As our sister site reported in September 2010, at that time President Obama and a Democratic Congress had increased the U.S. national debt by a level that exceeded the total national debt run up by the first 40 presidents of the United States (emphasis mine):

In the first 19 months of the Obama administration, the federal debt held by the public increased by $2.5260 trillion, which is more than the cumulative total of the national debt held by the public that was amassed by all U.S. presidents from George Washington through Ronald Reagan.

The U.S. Treasury Department divides the federal debt into two categories. One is “debt held by the public,” which includes U.S. government securities owned by individuals, corporations, state or local governments, foreign governments and other entities outside the federal government itself. The other is “intragovernmental” debt, which includes I.O.U.s the federal government gives to itself when, for example, the Treasury borrows money out of the Social Security “trust fund” to pay for expenses other than Social Security.

At the end of fiscal year 1989, which ended eight months after President Reagan left office, the total federal debt held by the public was $2.1907 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That means all U.S. presidents from George Washington through Ronald Reagan had accumulated only that much publicly held debt on behalf of American taxpayers. That is $335.3 billion less than the $2.5260 trillion that was added to the federal debt held by the public just between Jan. 20, 2009, when President Obama was inaugurated, and Aug. 20, 2010, the 19-month anniversary of Obama's inauguration.

By contrast, President Reagan was sworn into office on Jan. 20, 1981 and left office eight years later on Jan. 20, 1989. At the end of fiscal 1980, four months before Reagan was inaugurated, the federal debt held by the public was $711.9 billion, according to CBO. At the end of fiscal 1989, eight months after Reagan left office, the federal debt held by the public was $2.1907 trillion. That means that in the nine-fiscal-year period of 1980-89--which included all of Reagan’s eight years in office--the federal debt held by the public increased $1.4788 trillion. That is in excess of a trillion dollars less than the $2.5260 increase in the debt held by the public during Obama’s first 19 months.

When President Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, the total federal debt held by the public stood at 6.3073 trillion, according to the Bureau of the Public Debt, a division of the U.S. Treasury Department. As of Aug. 20, 2010, after the first nineteen months of President Obama’s 48-month term, the total federal debt held by the public had grown to a total of $8.8333 trillion, an increase of $2.5260 trillion.

In just the last four months (May through August), according to the CBO, the Obama administration has run cumulative deficits of $464 billion, more than the $458 billion deficit the Bush administration ran through the entirety of fiscal 2008.

True, President Bush and the Republican Congress he had in about six of the eight years of his presidency were not exactly models of fiscal restraint.

That being said, President Obama and the pre-Tea Party Democratic Congress of 2009-2011 ramped up the spending even more, and at an alarming pace compared to President Bush or previous presidents.

Ratigan, a former CNBC business reporter, should know the debt picture is a lot more nuanced than former Democratic Hill staffer Jimmy Williams would have MSNBC viewers believe.

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