At this point, it’s conventional wisdom that President Obama has run a spendthrift administration. Annual deficits have been above $1 trillion since he entered office, and the most important legislation of his administration, the Affordable Care Act, will cost nearly as much over the next 10 years. He signed an $831 billion stimulus package, and pressed Congress for more money to support food stamps, unemployment benefits and fiscal aid to states.
It’s for all of the above that conservatives have excoriated Obama for increasing the debt load. Mitt Romney, in particular, has placed debt at the center of his campaign for the presidency. His Web site asserts that we have a “moral responsibility not to spend more than we take in,” and his most recent speech — to a crowd of supporters in Des Moines, Iowa — was a near-jeremiad on the peril of public debt. “A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and our nation, and every day we fail to act that fire gets closer to the homes and children we love,” said Romney, who blames the president for the conflagration.
But contrary to conventional wisdom and conservative rhetoric, Obama didn’t start the fire and, in fact, has done more than recent presidents to contain the blaze. I briefly mentioned this in yesterday’s post on the new Crossroads GPS commercial, but the simple fact is that Obama has run a shockingly cost-sensitive administration. Writing for MarketWatch, a project of the Wall Street Journal, Rex Nutting found that government spending has slowed dramatically under the Obama administration. From fiscal year 2010 to the present, government spending — including the stimulus bill — has risen at a 1.4 percent annualized pace, slower than at any time since the 1950s. For those who value fiscal responsibility, Obama is better than any of the past four presidents:
Spending has nearly flattened under the president, despite clear signs that the economy needs more to boost its prospects. Indeed, I think most liberals would have preferred profligacy from the administration; even if some of the spending was wasteful, it would have helped short-term economic prospects.
The simple fact is that there is no data to support the Obama “spending binge” of Republican rhetoric. At most, you could argue that Obama has locked in higher rates of future spending, with the Affordable Care Act, and has done little to slow the growth of Medicare. But even that’s suspect; Obamacare is unpopular, in part, because it cuts $500 billion from Medicare and tries to impose cost-controls on the health-care system writ large. Overall, the ACA would reduce the deficit by $100 billion in the next 10 years, and $1 trillion in the 10 years after that. In other words, Obama’s signature accomplishment — blamed for our debt and our sluggish economy — will do more to reduce deficits than any bill passed since the Clinton administration.
By contrast, as Jonathan pointed out yesterday, the Romney budget outline — if implemented in full — would be a disaster for the federal budget. It would require either deep cuts to existing social programs or tremendous deficits, and since past Republicans have been reluctant to make the cuts necessary to square the circle, there’s a high likelihood that Romney would also take the path of least political resistance. And so, like his Republican predecessor, a President Romney would finance massive tax cuts with soaring deficits. Instead of trying to stop the “prairie fire of debt,” as promised in his speech, he would spark it.