“The truth is, the President’s supposed ‘spending binge’ is nothing but a myth, repeatedly debunked by independent fact checkers. Federal spending growth has actually been slower under President Obama than under any other president since Dwight Eisenhower.”
The Obama campaign is doubling down on claim that President Obama has the slowest spending growth of any president since Dwight Eisenhower. The Democratic National Committee is also jumping into the act, asserting in a news release this week that “under his leadership, we’ve seen the lowest spending growth in nearly 60 years—in fact federal spending growth has been slower than under any President since Eisenhower.”
The Obama campaign’s Web site displays a modified version of a chart to this effect that originally appeared in a column by Rex Nutting for MarketWatch. The charts lists as among its sources: “Congressional Budget Office (CBO), nonpartisan analysis for the U.S. Congress.”
This sourcing to the CBO — though it was not CBO’s analysis that formed the basis of this claim — and the reference to “independent fact checkers” gives this page a patina of authenticity. But it remains a tendentious assertion.
Let’s take a look at who the Obama campaign cites as “fact checkers” — and what various fact checking organizations actually have said about this claim. We will also look more closely at Mitt Romney’s claim that Obama has engaged in a “spending inferno,” which the Obama campaign is responding to.
At the bottom of the page, the Obama campaign displays a “Fact Checkers Report.” Three quotes are listed, by The Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, and Ezra Klein of The Washington Post.
The MarketWatch column started all of this, so it’s unclear how it could fact check itself. Rex Nutting, the author, in any case mostly writes on the global financial markets. Robinson and Klein, of course, are two of The Washington Post’s best-known opinion columnists. Robinson writes unabashedly from a left perspective. Klein writes on wonky financial issues, with most people pegging him as left-of-center.
Both Robinson and Klein, in their columns, said that our friends at PolitiFact had rated Nutting’s claim as “mostly true.” That was incorrect, and PolitiFact later clarified that it assessed Nutting’s analysis as only “half true.”
So how have the truly independent fact checkers evaluated Nutting’s analysis? The big question is how much of 2009 spending should be attributed to Obama’s policies. There is no easy or simple answer, and different people can come to slightly different conclusions. But no one ended up in the same place as Nutting.
Here’s a summary, with some editing for clarity:
Nutting attributed spending from the first year of every presidential term to the previous administration, arguing that every new president starts their term four months into a fiscal year begun under their predecessor. Historically, this has not been a particularly controversial approach, and even some of Nutting’s critics we spoke to agreed that it’s not a bad rule of thumb.
But fiscal year 2009 was special because it came amid an economic and financial free fall that drove the nation’s leaders to spend a lot more than they ordinarily would.
Our extensive consultations with budget analysts since our item was published convinces us that there’s no single “correct” way to divvy up fiscal 2009 spending, only a variety of plausible calculations. So the second portion of the Facebook claim -- that Obama’s spending has risen “slower than at any time in nearly 60 years” -- strikes us as Half True.
The problem with that rosy claim by MarketWatch is that the Wall Street bailout is part of the calculation. The bailout ballooned the 2009 budget just before Obama took office, making Obama’s 2010 results look smaller in comparison. And as almost $150 billion of the bailout was paid back during Obama’s watch, the analysis counted them as government spending cuts.
It also assumes Obama had less of a role setting the budget for 2009 than he really did.
The analysis simply looks at the year-to-year topline spending number for the government but doesn’t account for distortions baked into the figures by the Wall Street bailout and government takeover of the mortgage lending giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The MarketWatch study finds spending growth of only 1.4 percent over 2010-2013, or annual increases averaging 0.4 percent over that period. A fairer calculation would give Obama much of the responsibility for an almost 10 percent budget boost in 2009, then a 13 percent increase over 2010-2013, or average annual growth of spending of just more than 3 percent over that period.
Our own analysis leads us to conclude that Obama deserves responsibility for somewhat more fiscal 2009 spending than Nutting assigns to him. Spending in that year shot up an incredible $535 billion. Nutting holds Obama responsible for only 26 percent of that increase, but we conclude that Obama can fairly be assigned responsibility for as much as 38 percent.
We also disagree with Nutting’s conclusion that Obama’s increases are the lowest since Eisenhower. Not only should Nutting have measured Obama’s increases from a lower base, in our judgment, he also fails to take account of inflation, which has been extraordinarily low during Obama’s term.
Nutting acknowledges that Obama is responsible for some 2009 spending but only assigns $140 billion. On the other end of his calculations, Nutting says that Obama plans to spend $3.58 trillion in 2013, citing the Congressional Budget Office budget outlook. But this figure is CBO’s baseline budget, which assumes no laws are changed, so this figure gives Obama credit for automatic spending cuts that he wants to halt. The correct figure to use is the CBO’s analysis of the president’s 2013 budget, which clocks in at $3.72 trillion.
Obama’s numbers get even higher if you look at what he proposed to spend, using CBO’s estimates of his budgets. Nutting suggests that federal spending flattened under Obama, but another way to look at it is that it flattened at a much higher, post-emergency level — thanks in part to the efforts of lawmakers, not Obama.
Another problem with Nutting’s analysis is that the figures are viewed in isolation and does not take into account either inflation or the relative size of the U.S. economy. In the post-war era, federal spending as a percentage of the U.S. economy has hovered around 20 percent, give or take a couple of percentage points. Under Obama, it has hit highs not seen since the end of World War II.
So, in sum, the conclusions of “independent fact checkers” are unanimous, even though we reach a similar destination through different routes: The data used in the MarketWatch analysis is flawed in a number of ways — the starting point is wrong, the ending point is misleading and it is not inflation adjusted.
That does not excuse the Romney campaign from its own numbers games. The line that appears on the Facebook post evaluated by PolitiFact — and which foreshadowed Romney’s claim of a “spending inferno” — appears on the Romney Web site. Often, the line is truncated (as it is on the Obama campaign Web page) so we will present the full sentence:
“Since President Obama assumed office three years ago, federal spending has accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history, taking us from an already staggering $3.5 trillion in federal spending in 2010 to a projected $5.6 trillion within the next decade.”
The Romney campaign is basing its claim that spending “has accelerated” on a future projection, for spending that would take place long after Obama would even complete a second term. The numbers are correct — based on budget projections — but the reasoning is ridiculous. (Who can truly predict what spending will be ten years from now — and then pretend as if it has already happened?)
If we were doing a fuller fact check of this statement, Romney’s claim probably would be worth Three or Four Pinocchios. (Oddly, the Romney campaign does not attribute any 2009 spending to Obama, despite all the handwringing above by fact checkers about Obama’s responsibility for that year.)
The Pinocchio Test
The Obama campaign web page is cleverly worded to make it appear as if “independent fact checkers” support the claim that spending has grown slower under Obama than any president since Eisenhower. Fact checkers have certainly found fault with the claims made by the Romney campaign about Obama’s spending, but we have also all disputed the analysis touted by the Obama campaign.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. And while campaigns love to cite fact-checking organizations, that does not give them license to anoint a supportive columnist as a “fact checker.”
To have any credibility, the White House should be citing a real analysis by the Congressional Budget Office or career officials at the Office of Management and Budget — not an opinion article that had been found deficient by fact checkers and other analysts.
UPDATE: We described Klein as an opinion columnist because he is listed that way on The Washington Post Web site. He objects to that description. “I’d say what we do is reported/researched analysis,” he wrote in an e-mail. “These distinctions all get a bit weird and muddy, but whatever the right term for me is, it’s not opinion columnist.”
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