Which President Owns the Lion’s Share of Our Debt?

Deficit By President

When you look at the chart above, does it surprise you? Is this what you hear when you read, watch or listen to the news? The entire GOP campaign has been about Obama’s “failed presidency” and the $19 trillion dollar debt he racked up.   It is often said that history cannot be judged in the present, because we are too close to it.   In other words, we feel the emotion, our buttons are pressed, and no matter how good things are, the temptation to get bitter that it isn’t better is often just too much not give in to it. And there are always louder voices on the angry side than there are on the happy side. Few people create huge gatherings to shout about how great things are (except when a sports title is won), but given them a reason to be angry or a common enemy and they’ll come out in droves.

Therefore, it requires time, often decades to look back at a given period to evaluate objectively how successful an era was. As we look back on how history has evaluated leaders and time periods, there are two measures that rise above all others when determining that success.   The level of peace and stability a society felt, and their prosperity. To another degree, scientific achievements define an era as well, but typically they are directly correlated to the first two measures. We created nuclear weapons (and power) as a direct result of World War II, and sent a man to the moon to demonstrate ballistic missile capabilities to the Russians.   The Internet boom was defined by the prosperity that came with it, as well as the volatility of moving faster than we ever did before.

Over the last 36 years, we have had five presidents. Of the five, Reagan is often referred to as the most successful. He turned around an abysmal economy, is credited with ending the Cold War, and was a key player in the fall of the Soviet Union. Given these critical milestones, it would be difficult to fault the man for being the first president to leave our nation with a 12-figure deficit. Not debt, which is the cumulative effect of deficits over time. In fact, under Reagan, the model Republican, the annual deficit grew 80% by the time he left office. This fact, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so bothersome if it was a black swan. A one-time event in response to extraordinary times. The problem is, it didn’t end with Reagan.

Of the 4 remaining presidents, only two left office with a smaller deficit than they started with, and neither were Republican. Bush (41) increased the deficit by 87%, and he did so in just 4 years! His brother, Bush (43) is a bit more difficult to measure because the denominator he inherited from Clinton was negative. Clinton took a $290 billion dollar deficit (which was a mere $72 billion just 12 years prior) and turned it into a $236 billion dollar surplus. Yes, he had help from a booming Internet economy, but we have had analogous booms before and after, and no one has ever achieved such an enormous swing prior to Clinton.

By the end of Bush’s (43) second term, he took a $236 billion dollar surplus to a $1.4 trillion dollar deficit, accounting for close to a $2 trillion swing. In fairness, a huge spike was related to the financial crisis and the government response. However, even if you remove that spike, Bush still added $700 billion to the annual deficit in his final year making it roughly 10 times the size it was when Reagan took office. In comparison, Obama took a $1.4 trillion dollar deficit down to $500 billion during his 7 years in office, cutting the deficit by two thirds. So while it is fair to say that Obama added $6.5 trillion dollars in debt, imagine what this number would be if Bush had another 8 years. It is important to note that an administration can’t simply create a budget out of thin air. They have to work from the baseline they start with, and either cut or grow from there.

Imagine a publicly traded business with a former CEO who took a company from the black into the deep trenches of the red. A new CEO comes in and reduces those losses year over year, ultimately cutting them by 64%. Who would Wall Street view more favorably? It wouldn’t even be a question, yet when we evaluate the success or failure of each administration, it is a question.

As a society, we focus too much of our intellectual capacity on political party affiliations, and fan fare when it comes to our choices. I have heard the Christian candidates refer to a biblical quote multiple times this election… “we will know them by their fruit.” For those not familiar with this Christian citation, it means that a person’s actions define their character.   The fact is that the Republican party of the last 3 decades is not the party of small government or financial conservatism. We can see that in their fruit. Out of 5 presidencies, the three Republicans grew the annual deficit every time, and the two Democrats decreased it every time.

In other words, if you truly consider yourself a Republican as defined by Lincoln, you might want to consider voting for the only actual Republicans in this election. For the record, both of them happen to be Democrats.