There are two answers: more than $4 trillion, or about $983 billion. The first answer is simple and wrong. The second answer is more complicated but a lot closer to being right.
When Obama took office, the national debt was about $10.5 trillion. Today, it’s about $15.2 trillion. Simple subtraction gets you the answer preferred by most of Obama’s opponents: $4.7 trillion.
But ask yourself: Which of Obama’s policies added $4.7 trillion to the debt? The stimulus? That was just a bit more than $800 billion. TARP? That passed under George W. Bush, and most of it has been repaid.
There is a way to tally the effects Obama has had on the deficit. Look at every piece of legislation he has signed into law. Every time Congress passes a bill, either the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the effect it will have on the budget over the next 10 years. And then they continue to estimate changes to those bills. If you know how to read their numbers, you can come up with an estimate that zeros in on the laws Obama has had a hand in.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities was kind enough to help me come up with a comprehensive estimate of Obama’s effect on the deficit. As it explained to me, it’s harder than it sounds.
Obama, for instance, is clearly responsible for the stimulus. The health-care law, too.
When Obama entered office, the Bush tax cuts were already in place and two wars were ongoing. Is it fair to blame Obama for war costs four months after he was inaugurated, or tax collections 10 days after he took office?
So the center built a baseline that includes everything that predated Obama and everything we knew about the path of the economy and the actual trajectory of spending through August 2011. Deviations from the baseline represent decisions made by the Obama administration. Then we measured the projected cost of Obama’s policies.
In two instances, this made Obama’s policies look more costly. First, both Democrats and Republicans tend to think the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts is a quirky budget technicality, and their full extension should be assumed. In that case, voting for their extension looks costless, and they cannot be blamed for the resulting increase in deficits. I consider that a dodge, and so I added Obama’s decision to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years — at a total cost of $620 billion — to his total. If Obama follows through on his promise to extend all the cuts for income under $250,000 in 2013, it will add trillions more to the deficit.