CBS News is getting a lot of diggs, tweets and shares for its story on the latest national debt numbers from the Treasury Department. But, as is too often the case with reports about this big number, the piece doesn’t give readers a clue about what’s really going on.

The headline sets the tone:

National Debt Up $2 Trillion on Obama’s Watch

And that’s what the story is about. But it never gets around to defining national debt (cap N, cap D, throughout, natch). Instead, it blasts some pretty staggering figures, with precious little context.

The debt now stands at $12.6 trillion. On the day Mr. Obama took office it was $10.6 trillion.


President George W. Bush still holds the record for the most debt run up on his watch: $4.9 trillion. But it took him over four years to rack up the first two trillion dollars in debt. It has taken Mr. Obama 421 days.

As my colleague Ryan Chittum, the “Oracle of Tulsa,” has pointed out before (about a different story, but with the same problem):

The story gives readers little context about why the deficit is as high as it is, and why it’s increasing, instead leading them to believe its mostly Obama’s fault (it’s not).

The CBS piece then moves to the kind of he-said, she-said that does readers no good at all.

“I walked into office facing a massive deficit, most of which was the result of not paying for two wars, two tax cuts, and an expensive prescription drug program,” Mr. Obama said last month in a speech to corporate executives at a Business Roundtable conference.

Interesting. That quote is about the deficit, not the debt. Surely a definition is in order here.

The Treasury Department supplies one, with a handy FAQ running down this whole set of terms.

Debt held by the public is the most meaningful of these concepts and measures the cumulative amount outstanding that the government has borrowed to finance deficits.

(For the truly interested, there’s also “The Debt to the Penny and Who Holds It” feature—though I’d rather spend my late-night screen time looking at steepandcheap.com.)

And what about Obama’s attempt to blame his predecessor? This excellent New York Times graph, “How Trillion-Dollar Deficits Were Created,” shows plenty of reason to look at the Bush years for an explanation of some of those trillions.

It’s hard to overstate how important it is to get this right. These numbers are driving our politics right now.

Politco provides pretty clear proof of that today:

Rep. Bobby Bright is pitching a balanced budget amendment. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas wants to eliminate certain capital gains taxes. And Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick has introduced a bill to cut congressional pay by 5 percent.


Their ideas are straight out of the fiscal conservative playbook. But these three lawmakers aren’t competing for a Club for Growth endorsement; they’re potentially vulnerable freshman Democrats who are desperately trying to show skeptical voters that they’re just as disgusted with government spending as taxpayers are.


Across the country, freshman Democrats representing red districts have introduced scores of these types of bills and resolutions that have little chance of passing but that allow lawmakers to send a news release to the home district touting their fiscal conservative bona fides.

The press owes it to readers to explain exactly what these numbers mean, and how they got so big.

Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.