A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Debtor Nation

On "FOX News Sunday" on March 1, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona castigated Obama’s budget for expanding the country’s public debt. Obama’s budget certainly projects rapid growth in red ink. But Kyl’s attacks could use some context and correction.


Kyl: This budget adds more debt to our country’s future than all of the debt from 1789 when George Washington was president right up through Franklin Roosevelt and – and Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush. In other words, in just the 10 years of this budget, we will have more than doubled the debt of the United States of America from its 220-year history.

First, a little historical background. The United States has been operating with a debt nearly since its inception. On Jan. 1, 1791, the still formative U.S. Treasury owed about $75 million due to costs associated with the Revolutionary War. The debt did diminish and reach zero at one point under President Andrew Jackson. But it’s been growing since.

Obama’s FY2010 budget forecasts that the national public debt will grow from $12.7 trillion in 2009 to $23.1 trillion in 2019, slightly less than doubling in that time period (not more than double, like Kyl said). Kyl’s statement implies that racking up the public debt like this is a rare feat. But it’s not. Even if Obama’s submitted budget passes through Congress and is implemented over a two-term presidency, he would still not set the record for proportional growth. Over eight years under President George W. Bush, the debt also nearly doubled from $5.8 trillion in FY2001 to $10 trillion in FY2008. Under President Ronald Reagan, it nearly tripled from $998 billion to $2.6 trillion.