The “Mostly True” Side of Political Memes

The first time I saw this picture (read: meme, because let’s be honest that’s exactly what this is) it made my head spin a little. Sure, I wanted to read the claims and nod along all-knowingly but truthfully I had no idea what any of it meant. 

So let’s break this thing down together. 

Step one is figuring out what an “annual deficit” is. According to this article on PolitiFact, the annual deficit is the “difference between what the government collects in revenues and spends in one year.” And while it is similar to the annual debt, “is the net of annual deficits minus any annual surpluses.” 

Now that we sort of have an idea about what a deficit is, let’s start with the top of the meme. In 2015, Obama claimed “We’ve seen ‘our deficits cut by two-thirds.’” And there is a lot of truth behind this claim. Yes is true that the deficit declined by approximately two-thirds between 2009 and 2014. But there are so catch-alls 

2009 was Obama’s first year in office and he didn’t have much control over spendings. After this year there is a steady drop in the deficit but that doesn’t mean he was projecting it to continue to drop. And it didn’t. According to the figure below, the deficit sort of levels out. It isn’t balanced or in a surplus but it looks to be steady. PolitiFact calls Obama’s claim: Mostly True. 

Now let’s take a look at Clinton. In 2012 he claims that he “gave [us] four surplus budgets for the first time in more than 70 years, [and] paid $600 billion down on the national debt.” Here, it gets a little confusing. It is true that Clinton gave four surplus years and the last surplus was in 1927 and he did pay approximately 600 billion to the national debt, which contributes to the annual deficit. 

In his time as president, the public debt dropped and the total debt rose. It seems contradictory, but that doesn’t mean the work was futile. He was still capable of creating a four-year surplus and paying part of the national debt. 

Then there’s the last bit. In February of 2019 Trump claimed that “deficits seem to be coming down.” One of the issues here is that Trump was speaking about the December deficit report (read: monthly). The Clinton and Obama claims are based on annual reports. Shai Akabas told to FactCheck “Looking at one month and saying deficits are getting better is like looking at the weather in November and December and saying the climate is getting colder.”

Spending is relatively low in the winter months, so of course, the deficit is going to low for a few months, but this isn’t regarding the long-term year at all. There would be little to no statistical difference between December and January. 

The  Congressional Budget Office, predicts the annual deficit to increase steadily between 2019 and 2022 (See figure below). Where the meme found “thirteen months” baffles me since the deficit isn’t projected to reach $1 trillion until approximately 2021. Yes, the deficit was $900 billion for 2019 which is close to one trillion, it isn’t quite. 

This meme is full of most truths. It is mostly true that Obama and Clinton lowered the annual deficit in their time as president. And it is mostly true that the annual deficit has increased under Trump’s presidency. Ranking in the style of PolitiFact, this meme is Mostly True. 


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