Get PolitiFact in your inbox.

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan March 8, 2012

Obama promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term but didn't

Lenny Curry, the head of the Republican Party of Florida, said President Barack Obama is going to have a hard time winning Florida, citing gas prices and federal spending as just two reasons.

"Obama’s going to come here and spend a lot of money, but President Obama's going to have to run on his record. He's going to have to run on what he promised," said Curry in an interview on Bay News 9’s Political Connections on March 4, 2012.

"He promised gasoline I believe at $2.50. When he took office it was about $1.68. We know it's well above $2.50 now. He promised he would cut the deficit in half. We know what's happened there," Curry said.

Curry went on to praise Florida Gov. Rick Scott for job creation, saying that Scott showed a clear contrast with the Obama administration.

Curry, a businessman from Jacksonville, became head of the state party in September 2011. He was the hand-picked successor of party chairman Dave Bitner, who died after a fight with Lou Gehrig's disease.

We wondered if Curry was accurate in describing Obama’s promises to voters, so we decided to check it out. Here at PolitiFact, we take a special interest in the campaign promises of elected officials. We collected Obama’s promises for our Obameter and Scott’s promises for the Scott-O-Meter.

Here, we’ll look at whether Obama promised to cut the deficit in half. (In a separate report, we’ll look at whether he promised to keep gasoline prices at $2.50 a gallon.)

Our research revealed that Obama did in fact promise to cut the deficit in half. He made the promise not on the campaign trail, but soon after taking office, at a meeting organized by the White House and dubbed the "Fiscal Responsiblity Summit." (The Republican Party of Florida pointed us to this event when we asked them for evidence for Curry’s statement.)

Here’s what Obama said at the meeting on Feb. 23, 2009:

"Today I'm pledging to cut the deficit we inherited by half by the end of my first term in office," Obama said. "Now, this will not be easy. It will require us to make difficult decisions and face challenges we've long neglected. But I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay, and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control."

The next day, Obama repeated the pledge, this time in an address to a joint session of Congress. "Yesterday I held a fiscal summit where I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term in office," he said.

Is Obama keeping that promise? In a word, no.

In 2009, the year Obama took office, the annual deficit was $1.4 trillion. (Generally speaking, the deficit is the amount the government takes in minus what it spends.)

The deficit was a little smaller in 2010 and 2011, but only modestly so, at about $1.3 trillion for each year, according to numbers from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. For 2012, the budget is projected to be $1.1 trillion.

The White House’s budget projections show a deficit of $901 billion in 2013, also short of Obama’s goal, even if his policies are enacted by Congress, which is by no means certain.

Obama was specifically asked about the promise in an interview in February 2012 with Atlanta’s WAGA-TV. (His campaign pointed us to those comments when we asked for response.) He said he wasn’t able to keep the promise because the economic downturn was much more severe than was commonly understood in 2009.

"Well, we're not there because this recession turned out to be a lot deeper than any of us realized. Everybody who is out there back in 2009, if you look back at what their estimates were in terms of how many jobs had been lost, how bad the economy had contracted when I took office, everybody underestimated it. People thought that the economy contracted 3 percent. It turns out it contracted close to 9 percent. …

"So, the die had been cast, but a lot of us didn't understand at that point how bad it was going to get. That increases the deficit because less tax revenues come in, and it means that more people are getting unemployment insurance, we're helping states more so they don't lay off teachers, etc. The key, though, is we're setting ourselves on a path where we can get our debt under control.

"The most important thing we can do, though, to reduce our debt is to make sure that we continue growing this economy. We’ve seen some recent good news about unemployment numbers coming down, more jobs being created.  We’ve got to to maintain that momentum even as we make some tough choices in terms of government spending."

Our ruling

Back in 2009, shortly after he was inaugurated, Obama did promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. He has not been able to keep that promise, however. Obama said recently the reason for that is the economic downturn was much worse than expected, which in turn drove down tax revenues and drove up spending on things like unemployment and aid to the states.

Curry, the head of the Republican Party of Florida, said that Obama "promised he would cut the deficit in half. We know what's happened there." He prefaced it with a simple statement that Obama would have to run on his record. The record supports Curry’s statement, so we rate his statement True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

U.S. Government Printing Office, President Barack Obama speech at the Fiscal Responsibility Summit, February 2009

U.S. Government Printing Office, Address Before a Joint Session of the Congress, February 24, 2009

Congessional Budget Office, Historical Budget Data—January 2012 Baseline, Jan. 12, 2012

Congessional Budget Office, Testimony on the Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022, Feb. 2, 2012

The White House, The Budget, Fiscal Year 2013, accessed March 8, 2012

Los Angeles Times, Obama faces an uphill battle on pledge to halve federal deficit, Feb. 29, 2009

Real Clear Politics, President Obama interview with WAGA-TV, Feb. 14, 2012

USA Today, Obama budget to miss deficit goal, Feb. 10, 2012

PolitiFact, Tim Pawlenty says President Obama is going to break promise on deficit and will double it, June 24, 2011

E-mail interview with Brian Hughes of the Republican Party of Florida, March 7, 2012

E-mail interview with Ben LaBolt of the Barack Obama campaign, March 7, 2012

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Angie Drobnic Holan

Obama promised to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term but didn't

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up