The other judgment call was when to end the analysis. After 10 years? After the first term? We chose 2017, the end of a hypothetical second term. Those are the years Obama might be blamed for, so they seemed like the ones to watch. But Obama’s spending is frontloaded, and his savings are backloaded. The stimulus bill, for instance, is mostly finished. But the Budget Control Act is expected to save $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years. The health-care law is expected to save more than a trillion dollars in its second decade. If our numbers were extended further, the analysis would have reflected more of Obama’s planned deficit reduction.
There’s also the issue of who deserves credit for what. In this analysis, anything Obama signed is attributed to Obama. But reality is more complicated. The $2.1 trillion debt-ceiling deal wouldn’t have happened without the Republicans. But a larger deficit-reduction deal — one including tax increases and spending cuts — might have.
Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog and a columnist at the Washington Post, as well as a contributor to MSNBC and Bloomberg. His work focuses on domestic and economic policymaking, as well as the political system that’s constantly screwing it up. He really likes graphs, and is on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. E-mail him here.
Adding to the deficit: Bush vs. Obama
In total, the policies Obama has signed into law can be expected to add almost a trillion dollars to deficits. But behind that total are policies that point in very different directions. The stimulus, for instance, cost more than $800 billion. So did the 2010 tax deal, which included more than $600 billion to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, and hundreds of billions more in unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut. Obama’s first budget increased domestic discretionary spending by quite a bit, but more recent legislation has cut it substantially. On the other hand, the Budget Control Act — the legislation that resolved August’s debt-ceiling standoff — saves more than $1 trillion. And the health-care reform law saves more than $100 billion.
For comparison’s sake, using the same method, beginning in 2001 and ending in 2009, George W. Bush added more than $5 trillion to the deficit.
What is often assumed in this conversation is that all deficit spending is equal and all of it is bad. That’s not the case. Deficit spending when the economy is growing is different from deficit spending when the economy is in crisis.
Nor is all deficit reduction alike. Sometimes, cutting the deficit will expand the economy. Sometimes, cutting the deficit will shrink the economy. Which brings up some other questions Romney’s clock can’t answer: What number we should see on it now? And when, and how fast, should it start slowing down?
That will be the subject of next week’s column.