They’re missing the boat here. Obama was clearly talking about the current deficit problems, which were created by George W. Bush, beginning with his unpaid-for tax cuts ten years ago and his unpaid-for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that continue to this day. That legacy continued through his 2007-2009 recession. The vast majority of the bailout costs are Bush’s, as is the lost economic growth.

While it’s true that if we had no accumulated national debt, the current deficit problems would appear somewhat less pressing, it’s hard to believe that $1.3 trillion annual deficits could ever seem underwhelming, even if we had started from a base of zero.

And anyway, again, what Obama’s clearly referring to in that passage is how much of that $1.3 trillion resulted from policies he inherited from Bush that were put in place beginning a decade ago. For the analysis there, we turn to The New York Times’s economics columnist David Leonhardt, who ran the numbers a year and a half ago on who was responsible for how much of the deficits.

Recall, back when Bush took office, the CBO projected average surpluses from 2009 to 2012 of $850 billion a year. So, 2010’s deficit wasn’t just a $1.3 trillion shortfall; it was a $2.2 trillion swing from what it could have been if Bush hadn’t taken the cushion away (I might add, and this is pretty crucial: Those huge surpluses would have eaten up most of the national debt PolitiFact is concerned about).

Of that swing, Leonhardt found $673 billion a year caused by Bush programs, $479 billion caused by the recession on Bush’s watch, $185 billion by the bailouts he instigated, and $232 billion by programs and/or wars he initiated and Obama either agrees with or can’t back out of (those numbers need to be updated a bit, but not that much).

That’s the legacy of deficit spending Obama is talking about. It adds up to $1.6 trillion of that $2.2 trillion swing. Wipe out just half of that number—or even just the $673 billion Bush is directly and inarguably responsible for—and the current problem becomes much more manageable.

And Obama the crazed “socialist” spender? Leonhardt found his policies added just $200 billion to the deficit—the vast majority of which was spent trying to keep Bush’s recession from becoming the sequel to the Great Depression.

So yes, what the president said there in the State of the Union is all true.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.