President Obama has "the worst record of any president when it comes to putting America deeper in debt," Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus charged Tuesday. [...] The Republican leader blasted the accumulation of additional debt as "immoral" and said the recent midterm elections showed American voters were "tired of Democrats' free-spending ways." "We literally cannot afford to continue Barack Obama's policies," he said.
Of all the things the Republican National Committee wants to complain about, this seems like an unusually poor choice.
Well, we haven't gotten into this in a while, and Priebus seems quite confused, so let's run through the basics.
Before we get into the history -- and the charts -- let's get a few things out of the way. First, just last week, congressional Republicans pushed for a package of tax breaks that would cost $440 billion over the next decade. How would GOP lawmakers pay for this? They wouldn't -- the tax breaks would just be added to the national debt. Given this, it seems like an odd time for the RNC to start whining about not being about not being able to afford Obama's policies.
Second, though I realize Republicans find this terribly inconvenient, President Obama has overseen the fastest deficit reduction seen in the United States since the end of World War II. For that matter, nearly all of the president's agenda -- Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, etc. -- would actually improve the nation's finances.
Third, Priebus may not remember this, but it was his party that turned a massive surplus into a massive deficit, putting two wars, two tax breaks, Medicare expansion, and a Wall Street bailout on the national charge card, leaving the bill for future generations. When the RNC chairman is ready to discuss the "immorality" of these policies, I hope he'll give me a call.
And with that out of the way, let's consider whether Obama has has "the worst record of any president when it comes to putting America deeper in debt."
He doesn't. Consider this chart, showing the debt increases per administration over the last generation or so.
Relying on OMB data, the public debt grew under Reagan -- who promised as a candidate to balance the federal budget -- by 186%. He is, by any fair measure, the Father of the Modern Deficit -- among modern presidents, Reagan fundamentally changed the way in which federal officials approached the nation's finances. When it comes to deficits as a percentage of GDP, Reagan also ranks last among all modern presidents.
From there, H.W. Bush increased the debt by 55%, Clinton by 37% (he's the only modern president to see surpluses), W. Bush by 86%, and Obama by 59%. I arrived at these numbers through simple arithmetic: what was the debt on their inauguration day, what was the debt when they left office, and by what percentage did the debt go up.
To be sure, Republicans' interest in the issue waxes and wanes, depending on who's in office and what the GOP wants at any given time, but for the Republican National Committee to argue that Obama has "the worst record of any president when it comes to putting America deeper in debt," that's just ridiculous.
I'd add, in case anyone's forgotten, that adding to the debt is not necessarily a bad thing. As a percentage, FDR ran up a massive debt to rescue the country from the Great Depression and fight World War II, but most fair-minded observers would probably agree that it was well worth taking on these debts given the circumstances. Similarly, Obama's Recovery Act rescued the country from the Great Recession, and it was deficit-financed, too, as it should have been.
If it were up to me, Obama would have run even bigger deficits and added even more to the debt, borrowing like crazy to invest even more in job creation and economic growth. Congressional Republicans made this an impossibility, but that would have been perfectly responsible.
That said, if we're going to have a conversation about fiscal policy -- and if the RNC is going to pick this particular fight -- we should at least stick to reality. And the reality is, Priebus is plainly, demonstrably wrong.