During President Donald Trump‘s tenure in the White House, the national debt grew by some $7.8 trillion—or nearly 40 percent compared to the amount when former President Barack Obama left office in January 2017.
In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he would “get rid” of the national debt during eight years in office. The president is actually leaving office after four years, having lost his re-election bid to President-elect Joe Biden. But instead of addressing the national debt during his four years in office, the Trump administration oversaw a significant increase even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the government to pass massive stimulus legislation.
When Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, the national debt stood at about $19.9 trillion. As he leaves office this month, the national debt has grown to about $27.7 trillion. That’s an increase of 39.2 percent.
The annual deficit under Trump ranks as the third highest of any president in history, with the other two being former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush who both oversaw wars during their tenures in the White House, according to Eugene Steuerle, co-founder of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, as reported by The Washington Post. Although much of the deficit spending under Trump came as a result of the COVID-19 stimulus, the debt was growing rapidly even before 2020.
Economists have pointed to Trump’s signature legislative achievement, the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, for pushing the national debt upward. The tax cuts, which largely benefited the wealthiest Americans and corporations, left a significant shortfall in tax revenue. The Congressional Budget Office projected in January that the annual deficit would be about $1 trillion going forward due largely to Trump’s tax cuts.
At the start of 2020, the national debt had already increased by about $3.3 trillion since Trump took office three years earlier. That came after the growing debt had stabilized in Obama’s final years in office. The former Democratic president had inherited an economic recession, leading the government to turn to deficit spending to shore up the economy. This caused the national debt to continue to grow substantially during his first four years in the White House.
When the pandemic hit the U.S. last year, it was clear to most economists that Congress needed to act quickly through massive stimulus legislation as much of the country entered stringent lockdowns in March. Congress passed the bipartisan $2.2 trillion CARES Act in the spring and then pushed through another $900 billion package in December. While economists say that the debt will need to be addressed eventually, most agree that the priority right now should be to address the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“As always, there are some who seem more concerned about the rise in federal budget deficits and public debt than by the rise in joblessness and losses of income generated by the shock,” Josh Bivens, director of research, at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in a blog post. “But prioritizing the restraint of debt in coming years over the restoration of pre-crisis unemployment rates is bad economics,” Bivens added.
Biden and the Democrats have already promised more COVID-19 relief, which would be expected to increase the national debt further before lawmakers work to reduce annual budget deficits. At the same time, the president-elect has said he aims to repeal Trump’s tax cuts and raise taxes on the wealthy, which would be expected to shore up additional government revenue.
Newsweek reached out to the White House for comment, but did not immediately receive a response.