Obama’s $6 Trillion of Debt

In: Politics US Economy

17 Oct 2013

I try to stay out of most political debates, but I want to toss a chart out to add a little perspective on the “Obama has added $6 Trillion of debt” talking point.

Check out the below chart (created in about 20 seconds using the awesome free St. Louis Fed online data tools).


The gap between the red and blue lines in each year is our deficit – that’s how much we need to borrow to keep the government running. The sum of all those deficits equals our debt. Make sense?

The rate of expenditure (red line) has been increasing pretty steadily no matter who has been president.

What has really been changing, obviously, is revenue (the blue line): first from the Bush tax cuts (2001-03), and then the recession (2008-2010; because less GDP = less tax revenue).

If you look at the end of the red line you’ll see that spending has been leveling out the past two years – for the first time in a long time. Also, revenue is increasing. We are starting down the path to fiscal recovery. We probably should be patting ourselves on the back a little, but of course no one wants to give either party any credit for this.

Personally I think we can cut expenditures AND increase revenues to close that gap (and turn it into a surplus), but nobody wants to have an adult conversation about that – thus the childlike brinkmanship and finger pointing.

10 Responses to Obama’s $6 Trillion of Debt



October 17th, 2013 at 15:52

Great, simple visualization and explanation. Parsimony!


Christopher P Brown

October 17th, 2013 at 17:04

The chart actually obscures the huge jump in expenditures during the late Bush/early Obama administrations. These temporary “stimulus” expenses that became the new normal.

It also glosses over the fact that the trend during the Clinton Presidency, if continued, would have kept us on a responsible fiscal path, and we wouldn’t be as far in the hole as both Bush and Obama has put us in.



October 17th, 2013 at 17:12

Scale should really be in log terms



October 17th, 2013 at 20:33

I’d love to see this corrected for inflation.



October 18th, 2013 at 08:08

This is a great chart. Interestingly that leveling at the end of the expenditure plot may just mean spending has reached an untenable high. Now if only GDP could keep growing faster.


Brian C

October 18th, 2013 at 10:13

There was actually an economic stall at the clinton/bush turn. Remember the dot com bubble burst and the R word was being whispered. Clinton’s economy could not have continue as it was. People also over look the things the fed was doing to keep the economy running. For example zero interest was not a feature, but a bug. And that stopgap measure only lasted so long.


Brian C

October 18th, 2013 at 11:48



October 22nd, 2013 at 08:28

It shouldn’t be in real-terms, because the debt is denominated in money terms. It should, however, be shown as a percentage of GDP.

The visually salient feature of the chart is the sweeping upward curve – the fact that it appears in both lines should tell us that it’s something that affects both of them roughly equally and therefore that it probably shouldn’t be included in a chart that is designed to illustrate the relationship between the two lines.

The “something” is of course growth (or rather growth plus inflation, aka nominal GDP, but then as I say, government debt is a nominal rather than a real terms variable).



November 14th, 2013 at 21:03

Based on the steep rise of revenue vs spending in the Bush years I don’t see how the tax cuts had a negative impact–the gap between spending and revenue appears to close up to the point of the recession (that’s a question, not a statement). I would note, however, that the leveling out of spending in the last two years was less Obama and more the House of Representatives.


Mike liveright

June 21st, 2014 at 20:08

I’d like to adjust the chart as follows:

1. Express it in ratios re GDP, that way the spending and revenue would be adjusted by any changes in value of money and population (at least working). it’s my recallation that the revenues are roughly stable at 20% and the spending at 23%, the deficit, thus about 3%, and the debt up and down, with rise at WW II, a fall after that, and then of course a rise now. (note I’d also like a similar one for state and local spending (and if they don’t generally balance their budget, state and local revenue)

2. Similarly ratios re GDP of the major components of spending and of revenue for the fed and the state’s, 4 charts, to see which increased and which decreased. It is my recallation that the FED spending decreases except for the ‘insurance’ social security and medicare/aid. That the state spending is roughly half the FED, and education is half, and police/prisons are a fourth?

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