President Obama reached a milestone last week: a doubling of the national debt held by the public in his nearly seven years in office.
Obama made his first presidential impression on federal spending in mid-March, 2009, less than two months after entering office. When he signed an omnibus spending bill into law that boosted federal agency budgets by double digits in some cases, the debt held by the public sat at $6.662 trillion.
Late last week, just days after Obama signed a bill to suspend the debt ceiling, total public debt rose to $13.378 trillion, doubling in just short of seven years.
According to the federal government, debt held by the public is all federal debt held by people, companies, state and local governments, Federal Reserve banks, foreign governments and other non-U.S. entities, minus certain bank securities.
The government separates out another kind of debt, which is intragovernmental holdings, or debt caused by the government when it borrows from its own accounts. Intragovernmental holdings stood at $4.288 trillion in March 2009, when Obama signed his first big spending bill.
Nearly seven years later, the government has borrowed another $1 trillion from its own accounts, and intragovernmental holdings debt now stands at $5.231 trillion.
Combining the two figures, total national debt was $11 trillion when Obama first had a say in the spending process as president, and as of late last week, it was $18.6 trillion.
The growth in total national debt is something Obama has largely ignored when he speaks about fiscal issues. Instead, he has focused on the decline in the annual budget deficit, which contributes each year to the total national debt.
Even on Monday, Obama boasted that he cut the annual budget deficit dramatically during his tenure.
"We were told that if we did get health insurance passed, we'd be adding to the deficit, it would explode," he said in Washington. "Well, you know what, we've covered 17.6 million Americans so far. And in the process, the deficit has been cut by two-thirds."
While the annual deficit has fallen, it did so from the record-high level that Obama and congressional Democrats created in Obama's first year. Then, the combination of boosted federal spending, the stimulus bill and a reduction in federal tax revenues created a $1.4 trillion budget deficit.
After four years of deficits north of $1 trillion, the budget deficit fell to $426 billion in the last fiscal year. That's just a bit lower than the highest deficit seen under President George W. Bush.
A closer look at the numbers shows that the budget deficit and the national debt grew significantly faster in the first two years of Obama's term, when Democrats controlled Congress. In those two years, the public debt quickly climbed $2.7 trillion, or an average of $1.35 trillion per year.
From there, the rate of growth in the public debt slowed somewhat when Republicans took control of the House. In the last four-plus years under Obama, the public debt has grown by about $850 billion per year, or about half a trillion dollars per year slower.
Under the legislation Obama signed last week, the debt ceiling is suspended until March 2017, which means the government is free to borrow whatever it wants to keep current spending levels in place, or even to spend more if Congress agrees.
By then, the total national debt is expected rise to somewhere north of $19 trillion.