Understanding the politics of the debt

CBS News went to some effort yesterday to promote this piece from CBS White House correspondent Mark Knoller: “National debt has increased $4 trillion under Obama.” That’s a shame; the piece is woefully devoid of context and meaningful details.

The latest posting by the Treasury Department shows the national debt has now increased $4 trillion on President Obama’s watch.

The debt was $10.626 trillion on the day Mr. Obama took office. The latest calculation from Treasury shows the debt has now hit $14.639 trillion.

It’s the most rapid increase in the debt under any U.S. president.

When adjusted for inflation, and when looking at the deficit as a percentage of the larger economy, that’s not quite right.

But, really, that’s just the start of the problem with Knoller’s analysis. The piece doesn’t mention, for example, that the debt increase “on President Obama’s watch” includes a $1.3 trillion deficit that was sitting on his desk the day he took office, left there by Bush/Cheney.

Knoller tells readers that the White House “blames policies inherited from his predecessor’s administration for the soaring debt,” but doesn’t tell readers whether the White House’s claims are true or false — Knoller just passes them along without any scrutiny or context.

In this case, when the White House blames policies Obama inherited, the White House happens to be telling the truth. Information from an image like this one offers a more complete picture for the public:

For that matter, it also matters which administration’s policies are driving the debt. Here’s another image that provides context Knoller’s piece did not.

And even after we take all of these facts under consideration, there’s another angle that often goes overlooked: must this additional debt necessarily be deemed a bad thing?

Looking back over the last several years, we can say definitively that Republicans were entirely responsible for the nation’s fiscal mess. But given the larger circumstances, we can also say with confidence that it makes a lot of sense for the Obama administration to run large deficits: he inherited a brutal recession that required expensive federal intervention and led to low revenues, as well as two ongoing foreign wars, which his predecessor never even tried to pay for. Of course the president is running large deficits; trying to eliminate them now would make an economic catastrophe even worse.

Knoller’s piece doesn’t provide any of this information. It’s a bit of a mess.