David Harsanyi of the Federalist challenges a popular misconception about American presidents and federal debt.

New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently wrote a widely shared article arguing that Democrats were the party of fiscal responsibility while Republicans were nothing more than profligate spenders and reckless tax cutters. The heart of Leonhardt’s contention relies on a old liberal claim that alleges GOP presidents are responsible for the bulk of our massive debt.

“Every one of the last four Republican presidents has increased the deficit,” Leonhardt writes. “Every one of the last three Democratic presidents has reduced the deficit.” He even has a chart to prove it. …

… Leonhardt, for example, makes a bunch of inconvenient debt that resulted from spending liberals deem “necessary” simply disappear. The stimulus bill championed and signed by President Obama was pegged at $787 billion, but the cost grew to around $2.6 trillion when “automatic stabilizers” — Keynesian spending increases embedded into law — were included. The above graph discounts “automatic stabilizers,” which are both supported by Democrats and a reflection of economic conditions.

While ignoring $1.8 trillion might be politically convenient, the fact is that the day Obama left office, the debt was almost $20 trillion, nearly double what it was when he got there. …

… The only other way a person can argue Obama “lowered deficits” is by comparing his first year of historically high deficits — fueled by outlays that he either signed into law, voted for, or supported — to his other years (although deficits were again rising by the end of his term). That is deceptive, to say the least.

Many presidents are guilty of growing the debt, but no president in history had ever taken on more than Obama did. And when we stop tipping the scale, and solely compare debt to the percentage of total economic output under all these presidents, we are left with a far different picture than Leonhardt’s selective framing.