Conservatives, especially those on the campaign trail, frequently remind voters that federal debt has risen to more than $18 trillion under President Obama. But that figure overlooks another nearly $3 trillion, which would put total federal debt at about $21 trillion.
The St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank puts total federal debt at $18.2 trillion in the third quarter of 2015, a 65 percent increase over the $11.1 trillion in federal debt when Obama entered office.
A quick look at the St. Louis Fed’s interactive graph shows that debt grew rapidly under President George W. Bush, but exploded under Obama. No surprise there—on either count.
However, the St. Louis Fed also tracks federal debt held by the Federal Reserve Bank—one of the most astonishing and disturbing graphs available.
Federal Reserve debt temporarily peaked at the beginning of the Great Recession, in the summer of 2007, at about $790 billion. It then fell to about $479 billion a year later, in the middle of the recession, when Bush was still president.
But in the first quarter of 2009, when Obama entered office, the Fed entered one of the biggest borrowing sprees in history. As the graph shows, Federal Reserve Bank debt more than quintupled, from $492 billion to $2.8 trillion last year.
Thus, when Federal Reserve Bank debt is included, total federal debt rises to $21 trillion—and that doesn’t include the additional long-term Social Security and Medicare obligations the country has incurred.
When Boston University economist Laurence Kotlikoff added those obligations to total federal debt, he came up with $222 trillion.
While Kotlikoff’s number is certainly scary, it is also flexible. The Supreme Court has ruled that people do not have a private property right to their Social Security and Medicare benefits. Congress can change the benefits at any time, which could dramatically reduce what seniors would receive, and therefore the debt related to those programs.
But the $21 trillion is real debt, not future potential obligations. And that’s scary enough.