The GOP v. Democrats, Round 1 – The National Debt

By Hugh Griffin-Banerjee

We Americans are often told that Republican administrations are better at cutting the deficit than Democratic administrations. For some unknown reason, the Democrats are inclined to bring a zucchini to a knife fight, but on the rare occasion some minor party factotum attempts to disagree.

The Near-Canada Gazette is a foster home for skeptics; we’re disinclined to believe anything we’re told by politicians or pundits or pedicurists or anybody else. If a significant assertion is controversial, then we try to make sense of it. If it’s testable, then we use simple, commonly accepted metrics to test it. (See Notes below.)

This is the first article of three that compares the relative economic performance of the three Republican administrations before the Trump Reign of Error against the last three pre-Biden Democratic administrations. Each article uses a single criterion––in this case the annual federal deficit, in sum the national debt.

For the purpose of this comparison, we (Miranda and I) researched the growth of the national debt during each presidential administration beginning in 1978, when Jimmy Carter approved his first federal budget. The comparison ends on September 30, 2018, which was the last day of the last fiscal budget approved by Barack Obama.

The incoming and outgoing national debts by administration over the forty-year period were as follows (in rounded billions):

President Party Years Entry Debt Exit Debt Increase Percent
J Carter Dem 1977-81 772 $1,142 $370 48%
R Reagan GOP 1981-89 $1,142 $3,233 $2,091 183%
GHW Bush GOP 1989-93 $3,233 $4,693 $1,459 45%
B Clinton Dem 1993-01 $4,693 $6,228 $1,535 33%
GW Bush GOP 2001-09 $6,228 $13,562 $7,333 118%
B Obama Dem 2009-17 $13,562 $21,735 $7,813 58%

Reading across the top line, the chart shows that President Carter inherited a national debt of $772 billion. The debt had reached $1.142 trillion (that’s trillions, with a “t”) by the end his last fiscal year, which was an increase of $370 billion, or 48% more than the debt he inherited.

In aggregate, the data tell us that the national debt increased by $10.9 trillion during the last three Republican administrations and by $9.7 trillion during the last three Democratic administrations. In other words, Republican presidents increased the national debt by $1.2 trillion more than Democratic presidents, or a paltry $60 billion per fiscal year!

If that’s insufficiently clear: The average Republican administration increased the national debt by 115%, and the average Democratic administration increased the national debt by 46%.

Unless the moon is indeed made of cheese, the Republicans will yell foul and produce their own “unbiased” analysis. That’s not to say that Democrats use agnostic, statistically valid data and Republicans get theirs from a twelve-year-old “statistician” who flunked math and who happens to be the daughter of an NRA lobbyist. Sadly, the pols in both parties are skilled in the dark art of data manipulation. If, however, you have qualms about the outcome, then change the dates, find a better barometer, and run your own numbers. The Republicans will be grateful––if perchance you can produce a different result.

It can also be argued that White House occupancy is a poor basis for comparison because Congress passes the budget, and the president merely approves it. In fact, the executive branch creates the budget at the president’s direction, he and Congress negotiate it, the president signs the final bill, and then he manages federal expenditures for the entirety of the fiscal year.

Update: The national debt increased by $7.8 trillion during Donald Trump’s Reign of Error, or about as much as it increased during the Obama years. Two small points of clarification. First, President Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression; trillions in stimulus were required to save it. In contrast, The Donald inherited the longest bull run in history. Second, it took the Obama administration eight years to increase the debt by $7.8 trillion. In contrast, Trump et al managed to achieve the same result in a paltry four years. Well done!


1) Higher national debts are bad, not good.

2) The forty-year period beginning with the Carter presidency in 1977 and ending with the Obama presidency was not chosen at random. Between 1977 and 2017, Republican presidents occupied the White House for twenty years and Democratic presidents occupied the White House for twenty years. In both cases, two presidents served two terms and one president served one. Apples to apples.

3) The sources for the budget deficits and other data are the US government and Statista. Nothing in this article came from Cambridge Analytica. (If you don’t recall the name, Google it.)

4) Neither party produced an annual budget surplus except for the last two fiscal years of the Clinton (D) administration. That’s 38 (now 42) years of deficits versus two years of surpluses.

5) This article was first written in 2018. I didn’t bother to redo the entire comparison for the obvious reason.

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