But, of course, it’s somewhat unfair to measure debt in this way. Presidents not only inherit the spending and compounding interest of previous administrations, but they deal with unforeseen circumstances that can lead to debt, like war and recession. Others, on the other hand, benefit from strong economies and a dose of luck. So the better question to ask is, “What situation is responsible for most new long-term spending?” The answer seems pretty obvious: one-party rule.
Presidents don’t pass budgets, Congress does. When the GOP held the majority in the House for most of Obama’s two terms, they mitigated the explosion of debt. If Congress had adopted the contours of Obama’s budgets, as Democrats almost certainly would have if they were in power, the former president’s record on debt would have been far worse. According to the CBO, the 2016 White House proposal would have added $6.6 trillion in deficits over ten years. And who knows what kind of costly programs Democrats would have adopted had they been unopposed.
The same can be said of Bill Clinton, who benefited greatly from a conservative Congress that curbed his worst instincts. Not so much George W. Bush (and, for now, Donald Trump), who rely on a largely pliable GOP.
Moreover, most big-ticket items (before the Obama administration’s norm-busting expansion of government-centered health-care) had some bipartisan buy-in. Other times, as with George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare, Democrats had argued that it wasn’t generous enough. It’s not as easy to assign blame as we’d like — though, other than military spending bills, I can’t think of any spending Democrats thought was too generous. While there may be fluctuations in how fast debt grows, the broader picture tells us that we are on an ascending — and accelerating — debt trajectory, no matter who’s in charge.