Ezra Klein
Doing the math on Obama's deficits

By Ezra Klein, Published: January 31

The campaign trail can be a lonely place, so Mitt Romney frequently invites friends to accompany him. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is an occasional companion. So is Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. But more often, Romney brings a large clock.

Romney’s people made it themselves. It has two giant flat-screen televisions pushed side by side. It’s surrounded by a green foam sign. And it’s hooked to two computers feeding it a live count of America’s rising debt burden, which stands well above $15 trillion. The clock represents President Obama’s economic failures. It’s there so Romney can point to it and tell the crowd that if he’s elected, he’ll “do a better job slowing down that clock.” But if you’re a deficit-obsessed voter, the clock doesn’t answer the key question: How much has Obama added to the debt, anyway?

There are two answers: more than $4 trillion, or about $983 billion. The first answer is simple and wrong. The second answer is more complicated but a lot closer to being right.

When Obama took office, the national debt was about $10.5 trillion. Today, it’s about $15.2 trillion. Simple subtraction gets you the answer preferred by most of Obama’s opponents: $4.7 trillion.

But ask yourself: Which of Obama’s policies added $4.7 trillion to the debt? The stimulus? That was just a bit more than $800 billion. TARP? That passed under George W. Bush, and most of it has been repaid.

There is a way to tally the effects Obama has had on the deficit. Look at every piece of legislation he has signed into law. Every time Congress passes a bill, either the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the effect it will have on the budget over the next 10 years. And then they continue to estimate changes to those bills. If you know how to read their numbers, you can come up with an estimate that zeros in on the laws Obama has had a hand in.

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