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I've been seeing this claim on Facebook a lot recently, somewhat virally:

Debt added by the previous 43 U.S. presidents combined $6.3 trillion dollars (sic)

Debt added by the president Obama $6.5 trillion dollars (sic)

Is this claim valid? I tend to think something is being misrepresented, although I can't say what.

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    There are 42 previous Presidents. – Jonathan. Feb 25 '12 at 10:53
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    Congress is in charge of the debt. Obama just gets the blame. – Colin D Jul 13 '12 at 20:12
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    Actually John there are 43 Presidents before Obama if you count Cleveland twice. Know your history.. – user8096 Aug 6 '12 at 21:20
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    Note that while this claim was false as of the time it was made, it won't be very far off by the time he leaves office. It's already around 80% higher than it was when Obama took office, as of today. Obama has accumulated more debt than any other single U.S. President (he reached that point about the time of this question,) but not more than all of them put together. Of course, whether it's really legitimate to assign the debt solely to any given President is another question entirely and largely depends on how willing Congress is to go along with the President's budget proposal. – reirab Mar 26 '15 at 5:09
  • @Jonathan, oddly enough, "the presidents are numbered according to uninterrupted periods of time served by the same person" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_presidents_of_the_United_States So Obama is listed as the 44th president with 43 previous presidents, even though the 22nd and 24th president were both Grover Cleveland. Bizarre, but that's the accounting that is always used. – Paul Draper Jan 12 at 23:16
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No, this is a false claim

In debunking this it is important to clarify that there are two types of debt the claim could be referring to.

There is public debt, which refers to all money borrowed by the US government through the issue of securities by the Treasury and other federal government agencies.

The other is gross federal debt which is the total of all public debt as well as any debt held by the government, such as social security or medicare.

It doesn't specify which type of debt in the claim, although in both cases the claim is false.

It is very easy to prove this claim false, by using the Debt to the Penny calculator on the TreasuryDirect website.

As of February 23, 2012:

Debt Held by the Public: $10.6 trillion
Intragovernmental Holdings: $4.8 trillion
Total Public Debt Outstanding: $15.4 trillion

President Obama was inaugurated as president on January 20, 2009

So, using the penny debt calculator to look at the timeframe from the date of President Obama's inauguration to now, we can get the figures needed to validate the claim.

On the date of President Obama's inauguration, rounded debt figures for debt accumulated by all previous presidents are as follows:

Debt Held by the Public: $6.3 trillion
Intragovernmental Holdings: $4.3 trillion
Total Public Debt Outstanding: $10.6 trillion

So, if we subtract these (unrounded) figures from the (unrounded) current figures above, we are left with the accumulate debt that can be attributed to President Obama.

Debt Held by the Public: $10.6 trillion - $6.3 trillion = $4.37 trillion
Intragovernmental Holdings: $4.8 trillion - $4.3 trillion = $0.44 trillion
Total Public Debt Outstanding: $15.4 trillion - $10.6 trillion = $4.8 trillion

In all cases, the debt attributed to President Obama is less than the total debt accumulate by the past 43 presidents for both types of debt.

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    The numbers are using projections based on what will be spent during Obama's term. Just like they do when they claim cuts. – Chad Feb 27 '12 at 13:44
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    @Chad, you mean the numbers in the claim? – Sonny Ordell Feb 28 '12 at 21:08
  • @SonnyOrdell - yes the projected public debt with just the currently approved spending will top 7t by the first of next year(for the Obama Administration portion). And that assumes they meet the 1t cuts they committed to but deferred. – Chad Feb 28 '12 at 22:19
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    Is this taking into account inflation? – nico Aug 7 '12 at 15:42
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This is a preposterous comparison to begin with, for two reasons:

  • In good economic times, presidents have paid down the national debt. In 1834 Jackson paid it off entirely. In fact, most presidents in the 1800s paid it down, as did Harding and Coolidge in the 1920s. And from 1946 to 1981 the debt was consistently reduced in real terms, though not in nominal terms. It's unfair to add together all those positive and negative contributions, then compare them to a president who inherited two wars, hemorrhagic tax cuts, and a massive recession.

  • From 1800 to today, the dollar has inflated by 1270%. Comparing nominal dollar values makes past debt increases look insignificant, even if you isolate them from debt reductions.

Yet even on those incredibly skewed grounds the comparison is false.

FactCheck.org has a detailed analysis, based on the same source Rachel McGilray used (Debt to the Penny). Here's an excerpt:

And it’s also untrue — as claimed in a graphic widely circulated by email and in social media postings — that the debt has increased more under Obama than under all previous 43 presidents combined. In fact, as of Jan. 31, 2012, the rise under Obama had yet to surpass the rise under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

The figures in that graphic are pure fabrications, as anyone can easily confirm by plugging Obama’s inauguration date — Jan. 20, 2009 — in the Treasury Department’s handy “debt to the penny” website. That shows the nation’s total debt stood at $10.6 trillion on the day Obama took office (not $6.3 trillion), and it had increased to nearly $15.4 trillion by the end of January 2012 — a rise of more than $4.7 trillion in just over three years (not $6.5 trillion).

That’s a huge increase to be sure — 44.5 percent. And the Congressional Budget Office now projects that it will grow to more than $16 trillion by the end of the current fiscal year on Sept. 30. At that point, the debt will have increased by more dollars in Obama’s first four years than it did in George W. Bush’s entire eight-year tenure, when it rose by $4.9 trillion. The rise under Obama would then be the biggest dollar increase for any [single] president in U.S. history.

That's still nominal dollars. Let's compare the total debt increases of the last five presidents in present dollars:

  • Obama: $4.89 T
  • Bush II: $5.73 T ($2.40 T in first term, $3.33 T in second)
  • Clinton: $2.21 T
  • Bush I: $2.54 T
  • Reagan: $3.82 T

To adjust for inflation, I used the average CPI values from the presidents' terms. Notably, under Obama the total public debt has increased by 38% in real terms, versus 54% under Bush II and 108% under Reagan.

So —

  • Obama has not “accepted more debt than all previous U.S. presidents combined,” or even half that. Nor has he raised the total debt more than the previous four presidents, or even half that. But during his tenure, the total debt has risen faster than at any other point in U.S. history.
  • Bush II holds the record for raising the debt more than any other single president. Obama will break this record in nominal terms at the end of the fiscal year and in real terms at the end of his term.
  • Reagan is the only president out of the past five to have “accepted more debt than all previous U.S. presidents combined.” In real terms, he doubled the total debt. In nominal terms, he almost tripled it.
  • Before that, FDR raised the total debt in real terms almost sixfold and in nominal terms eightfold. Lincoln raised it in real terms 20-fold and in nominal terms 30-fold.
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    This is not about is it a valid comparison this is about do the numbers match up. As pointed out above the numbers are for the spending that has been commited to through the end of the fiscal year. – Chad Feb 28 '12 at 22:21
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    @Chad It's always worthwhile to ask if a question is valid. Have you stopped beating your wife? – Chel Feb 28 '12 at 22:43
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    No I have not. But do you have a claim that says I have or have not? – Chad Feb 29 '12 at 13:51
  • Inflation is certainly a valid point, but the first criticism here isn't really a problem. The point being attempted is that under Obama the increase of the U.S. debt was greater than the cumulative increase under the previous 43 presidents. You could compare the 44 effects of individual presidents to each other rather than the cumulative effect of 43, but the claim doesn't need to. Moreover, the previous few decades years have seen enormous (real) increases; in living memory there haven't been reductions that even come close to amounts being discussed. – Paul Draper Jan 12 at 23:28
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On 20 January 2009 the debt held by the public was $6,307,310,739,681.66

In other words, not including the money the federal government owed itself, the debt was $6,307,310,739,681.66

On 31 March 2014 the debt held by the public was $12,619,319,113,193.99

31 March 2014 was the first date the statement in the title of the OP was true. However, it was not true at the time the question was asked.

As of 01 June 2016, the debt held by the public is $13,884,271,413,600.06

(all amounts in nominal dollars)

Source: http://treasurydirect.gov/NP/debt/current

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