Nancy Pelosi’s Debt Chart Is A “Pants On Fire” Lie


So says PolitiFact, a website that in the past has gone somewhat harder on conservatives than on lefties:

We find so much wrong with this chart that we don’t think it contains any significant approximation of the truth. It made a major calculation error that dramatically skewed the debt increase away from Obama and toward George W. Bush. It glossed over significant variations in time served in office. It cherry-picked the measurement that was favorable to its cause. And it is contradicted by statistics for GDP-adjusted debt, which show Obama to be the most, rather than the least, debt-creating president of the last five. None of this suggests that Obama can’t turn things around as the economy improves (and Democrats can also take some solace in the fact that Bill Clinton did remarkably well in all of our measurements). But in communicating which administrations contributed the most to growth of the debt, this chart is a failure. We rate it Pants on Fire.

Now, if this chart was so bad that even the left-biased PolitiFact had to rate it Pants On Fire, it’s gotta be really bad.

Time ranges: Bush served a full eight-year term, while Obama had served just 27 months by the time the chart was compiled. If the Obama figure were to be scaled out to a full eight-year period, he’d have a debt increase of 121 percent rather than 34 percent, making his increase greater than Bush’s. To be fair, that would be a simplistic exercise — but no less misleading than the chart.

Public debt vs. gross debt: Not only did the chart say it was using one statistic and then use another, it also cherry-picked the one that showed the comparison in a more favorable light. According to OMB statistics, public debt rose by 70 percent under Bush, 16 percentage points more slowly than gross federal debt did. And according to the Treasury, the public debt rose by 53 percent under Obama, compared with the 34 percent rise in gross federal debt.

Those numbers would have shown the two presidents much closer in their debt creation records — and that’s without even adjusting for the vastly different lengths of time in office.

Debt vs. debt as a percentage of GDP: Some economists will tell you that it’s not the size of the debt per se, but rather the size of the debt relative to the nation’s gross domestic product. This helps minimize the complicating effect of economic cycles and inflation. So how do those numbers stack up? Using OMB statistics, here’s what we came up with, using public debt figures not adjusted for the president’s time in office:

Reagan: Up 14.9 percentage points
George H.W. Bush: Up 7.1 percentage points
Clinton: Down 13.4 percentage points
George W. Bush: Up 5.6 percentage points
Obama: Up 21.9 percentage points (through December 2010 only)

So by this measurement — potentially a more important one — Obama is the undisputed debt king of the last five presidents, rather than the guy who added a piddling amount to the debt, as Pelosi’s chart suggested. Of course, all this goes to show that statistics can be used — and misused — to bolster almost any argument.

Feel free to bookmark this post and use it to refute lefties who try to use that chart to prove that Obama is some sort of fiscal conservative.

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About Conservative Wanderer

Conservative Wanderer is currently Editor-in-Chief of That's Freedom You Hear! That means anything that goes wrong can be blamed on him. Previously he was a contributor to the PJ Tatler.
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