As Democrats and Republicans girded for battle over the nation’s debt limit, President Joe Biden sought to tag his predecessor, Donald Trump, with a significant share of the blame for the nation’s $31.4 trillion federal debt.
The U.S. debt has been collecting for over 200 years, and “one-quarter of that debt was accumulated in the four years of my predecessor,” Biden said during a Jan. 20 event with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Biden also touted actions on his watch to cut the yearly deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars, setting up a contrast with the debt on Trump’s watch.
We found that Biden is right on the numbers, but placing the full blame on Trump, as he seemed to do in his remark,is misguided.
According to the Treasury Department, when Trump was inaugurated in January 2017, the gross federal debt stood at $19.9 trillion. When Biden took office, it was $27.8 trillion. So, the $7.9 trillion added on Trump’s watch was about 25% of the amount of today’s total debt.
The White House pointed to Trump’s support for the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which reduced taxes without offsetting spending cuts; the bill passed with only Republican support in Congress. The White House argued that the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act that Biden signed into law was designed to reduce deficits.
However, experts say the blame game on the federal debt is not clear-cut.
A key point that Biden glossed over is that much of the current federal debt stems from mandatory payments, such as those for Social Security and Medicare. These began spiking when the baby boom generation started drawing heavily from these programs around 2010. Not coincidentally, that’s when the federal debt began accelerating.
Generations of politicians in both parties approved and modified these programs long before Trump took office.
“It is always challenging to figure out how much spending was on whose watch,” said Steve Ellis, president of the federal budget-watching nonprofit group Taxpayers for Common Sense.
Similarly, the biggest single spike in the federal debt came from the initial rounds of coronavirus relief legislation in 2020. Trump signed them, but they passed with broad bipartisan support.
“Everyone, including me, said it was worth it, and without it, things would have been worse,” said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the center-right American Action Forum. “So, not fair to blame Trump exclusively for something everyone thought was needed.”
Finally, it’s possible to slice the numbers in a way that makes presidential blame look different.
If you look at the raw amount of debt added during a presidency, Barack Obama, who governed with Biden as vice president, ranks first. Trump ranks second on this measure.
Part of the reason Obama’s figure is so much larger than Trump’s is that he served eight years, while Trump served only four. So, if you divide the debt accumulated during each president’s tenure by the number of years they served, Biden, with only two years in office, has seen the largest rise in debt, with Trump second and Obama third.
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Biden said that “one quarter” of today’s $31.4 trillion federal debt “was accumulated in the four years of my predecessor.”
His number is accurate, but the figure leaves out important details and context. Assigning debt to a particular president can be misleading because so much of it traces back to decades-old, bipartisan legislation that set the parameters for Social Security and Medicare.
Biden’s decision to single out Trump also sets up an implicit comparison between himself and his predecessor. But other ways of analyzing the data undermine his point. One of those ways shows that Obama accumulated more debt than did Trump or Biden so far. Another way shows Biden presiding over the most debt.
We rate Biden’s statement Half True.