Why Obama Is No Big Spender

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Barack Obama
Barack Obama during a signing ceremony for the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank in Washington, DC. Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages

To the list of things that everyone knows is true … except for they’re not, add this one: President Obama’s been a big, huge, spender.  His profligate spending, as Gov Romney puts it, created a "prairie fire of debt."

In fact, President Obama's spending record is the lowest of any president since Eisenhower, according to a recent analysis by the journalist Rex Nutting for the website MarketWatch (MW).

I’m sure that sounds surprising, and it has led to some reanalysis of Nutting’s work,  which I’ll review in a moment.  His critics made one reasonable correction (and some unreasonable ones), but either way, the qualitative result is the same: Obama is low spender; in fact, when I make some adjustments that I think make sense, real spending has actually declined under his presidency (see here).

It goes without saying that conservatives are throwing a fit over this result, since it undermines two of their favorite talking points: 1) Obama spends like a drunken sailor, and 2) to fix America, end this runaway spending.

But there is no runaway spending. 

MarketWatch does not do somersaults to get these results.  Nutting took the published budget numbers and for this comparison used methods that are standard among budget analysts, coming up with a rate of spending increase, between 2009 and 2013, of 1.4 percent per year.  Comparable rates include 8.7 percent for Reagan’s first term (say it ain’t so, Ronny!), 5.4 percent for Bush I, 3.2 percent for Clinton’s first term, and 7.3 percent for Bush II’s first term.

Since a president inherits his predecessor’s budget – his own first one doesn’t take effect until his second year in office – the standard method here is to consider their first year in office as the base year.  In Obama’s case, that’s 2009.  Now, that year’s spending was inflated by a lot of stuff related to the Great Recession and financial rescue, so it’s a high base, but it’s still the legitimate starting point.  And MW tries to be fair by assigning the 2009 stimulus spending and some other appropriations from that year to Obama’s record.

The Washington Post Fact Checker made two other adjustments, one of which I think is legit.  First, he re-assigned some of the 2009 Troubled Asset Relief Program (aka TARP, aka the bank bailout) spending to Obama, a peculiar choice given that this was clearly a Bush program.  But OK … it is true that the 2009 TARP estimate turned out to be too high (giving President Obama a high spending perch to come down from) and later budgets’ adjustments to the TARP took the spending down as estimates began to reflect far fewer bank losses than expected (though this doesn’t effect that endpoint comparisons of 2009 and 2013 made by MW). 

This is also very cherry-picky of the Post … they didn’t go through and adjust other presidents' base years for other anomalies, of which there are many (recessions, wars, etc.).  On the other hand, the WaPo is correct that MW’s endpoint in 2013 is biased down, since MW uses the CBO "current law" outlays for that year instead of CBO’s score of the president’s actual budget request.  When you plug that in, instead of MW’s 1.4 percent spending growth per year, you get 2.4 percent.

But here’s the clincher.  Do it the WaPo way, including the (bogus) assignment of 2009 TARP addition to Obama, do it my way (with the correct 2013 endpoint), or do it MW’s way, you still get essentially the same result: spending under Obama increased more slowly than under any president since the 1950s.

This isn’t just academic, nor is it simply a matter of blowing away some Republican talking points.  The view that spending is out of control under the President is a key theme of the Tea Party, and it thus played a central role during the 2010 midterm elections.  And in no small part, those results heralded an era of political dysfunction that continues to generate steep human costs. 

This erroneous spending meme and the politics it engenders has thus far crushed any chance of additional job measures, leaving us slogging along at levels of unemployment that should be unacceptable.  Moreover, this state of affairs is even more unconscionable when you consider that the cost to the government of borrowing right now is lower than it has been in 60 years.

One day, facts will again matter.  The sooner that day comes, the better.