Reagan - 189% Bush - 55% Clinton - 37% Bush - 86% Obama - 35%I double-checked the numbers, and they are technically correct. But they’re also meaningless.
First, these figures compare presidents instead of presidential terms. It shouldn’t be surprising that a two-term president will tend to rack up more debt than a one-term president.
Second, this is one of those instances where percentages are completely misleading. Each administration inherits the debt built up by all previous administrations, and that inherited debt provides the denominator for calculating the percentage increase. As a result, the percentage is automatically pulled downward for later presidents simply because they are later.
(For comparison, imagine if the entire $14.9 trillion in debt accumulated since 1980 had been added in equal-sized chunks by all eight presidential terms. That would be $1.87 trillion per term. Yet the percentages wouldn’t be equal at all. They would decline in every single year, from a high of 201% for Reagan 1 to a low of 13% for Obama.)
So what happens when we correct for both errors? Correcting the term problem first, and also adjusting dollars for inflation (something else I don’t think the original source did), here are the percentage increases by presidential term:
Now Obama’s record isn’t the best. He has the third highest percentage increase, and he hasn’t even finished his term yet. (I used the most recent national debt figures, which you can find here. For pre-1993 figures, see here.)
But again, the percentage is misleading. It would be better to look at the absolute dollar increase (again, adjusted for inflation). Here’s what you get:
Now it becomes clear: Compared to the previous seven presidential terms, Obama has presided over the largest increase in the national debt. And again, his term isn’t over yet.
Obviously, Obama’s defenders will say his actions were justified. He inherited a terrible economy, a large stimulus was necessary to boost performance, some expenditure increases were outside Obama’s control, etc. Those arguments might even be right, and they’re free to make them… but only after admitting that the national debt did, in fact, increase dramatically during Obama’s term.
One final addendum: these numbers could, of course, be adjusted in many other ways as well. You could adjust for the size of GDP or population. You could change the start-and-end dates to reflect who passed the relevant budgets, or to reflect that a presidential term doesn’t start until about a month after the election; doing so would shift some of Obama’s debt into Bush II’s second term (as well as shorten Obama’s effective time in office). In truth, there’s something inherently silly about trying to attribute changes in the national debt to specific presidents at all, since additional debt results from a complex interplay of policies created by multiple presidents and congresses over time. All I’m really trying to correct here is two very obvious errors that the creators of these particular statistics should have seen instantly, and probably would have seen if they didn’t have partisan blinders on.