Nobody From Nowhere (@i8dc)

Occasional Common Sense

Re-checking the Fact Checker (Presidential Debt Edition, Part II)

with 4 comments

Back here I ran a bit on the Post’s Glenn Kessler’s takedown of a bogus chart put out by Nancy Pelosi’s office.  Apparently Kessler got lots of mail on this, and he ran a follow up, which said in part [my comments embedded]:

[S]ome readers took issue with our alternative way at looking at the growth of the national debt under various presidents… We appreciate the hard work of our readers to correct what they viewed as our faulty reasoning.

Well, this seemed like a weaselly response, given how wrong I think Kessler got this.  So I asked him in his chat today:

On your piece talking about debt under each president, any chance we’re going to get a for-posterity correction noting that your original method was fatally flawed? The update that pointed to altermate methods of calculating this was fine as far as it went, but it made no mention of the most fundamental error in the original analysis: that the assignment of a president’s debt included the last 3.5 months of the prior administration, because the fiscal year begins October 1. So the surplus of the last 3.5 months of the Clinton administration was assigned to George W. Bush, and the deficit of the last 3.5 months of the Bush administration ($500 billion) was assigned to Obama. Regardless of how quickly one thinks a new president should be put on the hook for the government’s performance, it’s just wrong to say he’s responsible for debt accumulated before he takes office. This goes beyond a perception of faulty reasoning. It’s demonstrably wrong, and it’s out there adding to the misinformation.

His response:

Frankly, I disagree. All of the presidents were analyzed the same way, and this three months of debt did not fundamentally change the conclusion. Besides, the point of the article was that the Pelosi chart was fundamentally flawed and misleading, and there is no dispute about that. I simply presented a more realistic way to look at the data, and then later displayed the reader-generated ways of looking at it because I appreciated the hard work of the readers and thought they made valid observations of how one could look at the data.

But the bottom line is the same: The Pelosi chart was bunk, and her office should be ashamed they ever unleashed it on the public.

Well, I quickly whipped up some numbers, but I didn’t get the response in quickly enough, so here’s a recreation.

In my original critique, I argued that it’s not fair for an incoming president to be held singularly responsible for the then-current fiscal year’s debt, as he had no input into the budget process.  Some adjustments are necessary; Obama shouldn’t get a pass on the FY09 impacts of the stimulus.  But for the most part, a president shouldn’t get blamed/credited for budgets he didn’t sign.

Usually this doesn’t matter much.  But during the last quarter of 2008, more than $500 billion of debt was accumulated, and GDP fell by more than it had in any quarter since the 1950s.  The result of this is that Kessler’s numbers for George W. Bush and Obama are significantly off.

I took a quick look at FRED to see what sort of data was readily available for Kessler to improve his assessment.  And lo and behold, not only is there the quarterly nominal GDP series (GDP), but there’s a nominal federal debt held by the public series (FYGFDPUN). Here’s the public debt as a share of GDP, going back to 1970:

It’s quite easy to run the calculations based on the end of the calendar year as opposed to the end of the fiscal year, which is what Kessler probably would have done if he had this data handy. Here are the differences between the end fiscal year and the end of the calendar year, for all presidential transitions going back to 1972:

1972: +0.19%
1976: +0.30%
1980: -0.18%
1988: +0.01%
1992: +0.48%
2000: -0.63%
2008: +4.86%

So this difference usually makes little difference, but in the case of the Bush-Obama transition (and to a lesser extent the transitions around Clinton), it matters quite a lot.

So here’s the table with Kessler’s stated data (which are from different sources) and FY-based and calendar-year-based data from the FRED series above:



Fiscal Year Split

Calendar Year Split

Change, Kessler to Calendar Year Split




































As I wrote before, any way you slice this data, it looks really bad for Obama.  Not really his fault, mind you, as it’s not like there’s a magic bullet that could have been deployed to resolve this bad economy.  But it looks bad anyway.

The real important difference in providing a more reasonable responsibility split is that it brings George W. Bush’s score back into the realm of where it should be.

Kessler says that fixing this would not alter the conclusion of his original column’s question about the Pelosi chart.  That’s true.  But the bad data resulting from his original analysis is now a part of the record, with his imprimatur.  Fixing it is easy, and I hope he reconsiders.


Written by David Clayton

October 12, 2011 at 9:40 pm

Posted in Debunkery

4 Responses

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  1. “In my original critique, I argued that it’s not fair for an incoming president to be held singularly responsible for the then-current fiscal year’s debt, as he had no input into the budget process.”

    Obama was a democrat senator in a Congress that had democratic majorities in both houses. According to the Constitution it is the Congress, not the President, who controls the budget process. Saying Obama had “no input into the budget process” is to ignore the basic facts of the budget process. Being that Obama had delivered the keynote address at the previous democratic nomination, one can say that he was a senator of the majority power who had influence over the budget process. It is because of the budget process we have no had an actual budget pass Congress in the last 3 years.


    January 24, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    • So now the budget is doing great now that the Republican are in charge of congress?

      Alex Contreras

      May 29, 2012 at 1:21 pm

      • The Republicans are in charge of the House. The Democrats still control the Senate, which has not put forth a budget for a few years now.

        Jason Abel

        August 28, 2012 at 11:37 am

  2. Does the fact that GWB kept the cost of the two wars that he started off the books have any impact on these numbers?

    Christina H.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:07 am

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