National debt hits $19.5 trillion
The debt clocked in at $19.51 trillion at the end of Wednesday, the Treasury Department reported Thursday afternoon. Precise debt figures on any given day are released on the following business day.
The national debt hit $19 trillion for the first time ever on Jan. 29.
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When President Obama took office in early 2009, the total debt was $10.63 trillion, which means it has almost doubled under his watch.
The Congressional Budget Office reported in August that the debt-to-GDP ratio will match levels not seen since 1950 by the end of the current fiscal year.
The debt is the sum total of annual budget deficits, plus interest, and those annual deficits are soon expected to rise again in the coming years.
President Obama has boasted of cutting the annual budget deficits by more than two-thirds over the last few years. But it was under his administration that those deficits soared north of $1 trillion, and only in the last few years did they return to the highest deficit levels ever seen under his predecessor, President George W. Bush.
While he was a senator, Obama criticized Bush for presiding over those same deficit levels, and said they represented a failure of leadership on the part of Bush.
Under current law, the debt ceiling has been suspended until mid-March, which means the debt is free to rise as high as the federal government lets it. The total national debt when Obama leaves office in January is expected to approach $20 trillion by then.
Figuring out how to handle the national debt will be among one of the first challenges for the new president and Congress to figure out. On March 15, the debt ceiling will be in effect again, and the new ceiling will be whatever level of the debt the U.S. has incurred by that point.
Barring another suspension or an increase in the ceiling, the government would have to use "extraordinary measures" to avoid breaching the ceiling, which involves temporary delays on issuing certain kinds of debt. But those steps have lately only been able to delay a decision for a few months.
In the last several debt-limit showdowns, Congress has opted for suspending the debt ceiling entirely for a period of time, rather than assigning a specific new ceiling.