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PolitiFact: Is Obama or Bush to blame for big budget deficit in 2009?

President Barack Obama speaks about the economy, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Obama is looking to frame the closing economic arguments of the midterm campaign. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ILNH105
President Barack Obama speaks about the economy, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Obama is looking to frame the closing economic arguments of the midterm campaign. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ILNH105
Published Oct. 10, 2014

The statement

"When I took office, the deficit was nearly 10 percent of our economy. Today, it's approaching 3 percent."

President Barack Obama, Oct. 2, in a speech at Northwestern University

The ruling

We looked at data from the Office of Management and Budget that tracks the federal deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product. Calculating it this way shows not the absolute level of the deficit, but rather how big it is in relation to the size of the broader economy.

The data show that for fiscal year 2009, the deficit as a percentage of GDP was 9.8 percent, while the projected percentage for fiscal year 2014 is 3.7 percent. But the timing of the Office of Management and Budget figures don't coincide with Obama taking office.

The 9.8 percent figure covers fiscal year 2009 — which runs from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 31, 2009. In other words, it covers a little less than four months of President George W. Bush's second term, and nearly eight months of Obama's first term.

That casts some doubt about the accuracy of how Obama framed the issue. Obama said, "When I took office," which suggests that he inherited his predecessor's deficit at nearly 10 percent of GDP and should get the credit for reducing it. The reality is that if Obama is going to claim some credit for reducing the deficit, he should also take some responsibility for pushing the deficit up to nearly 10 percent of GDP in his first fiscal year in office. Part of the reason the deficit was relatively high was because of the recession-fighting stimulus bill, which Obama championed.

The deficit-to-GDP percentage for the prior fiscal year, 2008, was 3.1 percent. This gives a sense of what Obama inherited — but it's not a perfectly useful number, either, because it stops almost four months before Obama took office. During those four months, the economy was worsening rapidly, and spending on the Troubled Asset Relief Program — which aimed to stabilize the financial sector — had begun adding to the deficit.

So if one could figure out a percentage for the day Obama was inaugurated — which actually can't be done — it would likely be somewhere between 3.1 percent and 9.8 percent.

There's another wrinkle in comparing deficits to the economy overall and then trying to take credit for improvements.

While it's relatively easy to assign credit or blame for government spending, which helps shape the size of the country's deficit, it is not nearly as easy to credit or blame Obama for the overall state of the economy as measured by GDP.

"The impact of a president on the economy is tough to measure," said George Washington University economist Tara Sinclair. "So taking credit for a normalizing economy and the associated normalizing of the budget deficit is generally pushing it, in my book."

The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details, so we rate it Half True.

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Louis Jacobson, Times staff writer

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

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