Clinton obtained his budget "surplus" by borrowing money from off-budget funds:
$152.3B from Social Security
$30.9B from Civil Service Retirement Fund
$18.5B from Federal Supplementary Medical insurance Trust Fund
$15.0B from Federal Hospital Insurance Trust Fund
$9.0B from the Federal Unemployment Trust Fund
$8.2B from Military Retirement Fund
$3.8B from Transportation Trust Funds
$1.8B from Employee Life Insurance & Retirement fund
$7.0B from others
If you factor those things in, Clinton actually ran a $16.5 billion deficit. The last real budget surplus was in 1969 ($3.2 billion), and before that was 1960 ($300 million). That's the simplistic answer to the original question: we're ~$17.5 trillion in debt because the government never runs in the black. Ever. If any business operated like this, the executives would be fired and drastic changes enforced, or the business would go bankrupt.
I'm not defending Bush and his tax breaks (or his refund of $300 or whatever to all the taxpayers, or the wars he helped bring about, without good reason or common sense).
Anyway, the largest expenses we have are defense, medicare/medicaid, and the interest on the national debt. A sizable portion of every dollar we borrow actually goes to pay interest on the amount we already owe. Our "deficit spending" has skyrocketed in recent years due to being involved in multiple wars, and economic stimulus to combat the housing-related recession.
Just to stop going further into debt, we'll have to raise taxes and cut spending, somewhere. The effects of those policies will be significant, and the politicians who enact them will not be popular.
The current US Congress is the least productive Congress in history. It's passed fewer bills, worked fewer hours, and filibustered though so much of its operating time that any salary paid to its members is a ripoff. Senators occasionally e-mail their filibusters in without bothering to show up.
For some reason, though, they keep getting elected. If you think the national budget might be difficult to trim, well, it is, but here are some of the things we've spent taxpayer money on recently:
$2.6 million, to educate Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly.
$750,000, for a soccer field for Guantanamo bay detainees.
$1.2 million to determine whether elderly citizens will benefit from playing World of Warcraft.
$1.8 million for a "museum of neon signs" in Las Vegas.
$10 million for a Pakistani version of "Sesame Street."
$27 million for (highly ineffective) classes to improve the economic competitiveness of Moroccan potters.
$2.7 million to study why lesbians have more “vulnerability to hazardous drinking”.
~$350,000 per year for hair care services for the US senate.
It just keeps going like that. Senator Tom Coburn has a publication called "Wastebook," where he lists the ridiculous things taxpayers have spent money on each year.
And if you want to watch the debt add up in real time, here you go: http://www.usdebtclock.org/
This is the bottom line. Democrats and Republicans alike are unwilling or unable to act in the interests of their constituents, who themselves have no political power. They consistently refuse to spend less than the government collects through tax revenues and other sources, so the national debt continues to climb.
Since neither party is inclined to pass anything useful (just 13 laws between January and June 2013, some of those outlining things like "the size of the precious-metal blanks that will be used in the production of the National Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coins"), and it doesn't seem like that's going to change, you can try to vote in third-party politicians who want to avert the economic collapse America is facing (good luck with that).
Or you can try to emigrate to another country with a sane fiscal policy. Those are more or less your only options.
17 trillion in Debt! Yes part of that is because when Mr. Bush took office the nation had no debt. Our nation had a surplus of $63.3 Trillion No debt. But like 99.3% of people he hated and lied too Mr. Bush started 3 unfunded wars. After 9/11 Never thinking about who was to pay for them. He gave everyone 4 times money to go spend on anything He started the melt down of the housing market because they cut all programs to block people who could buy a house to buy with no money. What did the republicans leave us all except the $400K club Cut every program to every poor or working class person. Yes we have Debt but get your facts right before you blame the black guy
Mostly because rich people don't want to pay their fair share of taxes so the government borrows to keep things going?