On Monday when releasing his budget the President said:
The fact is, 10 years ago, we had a budget surplus of more than $200 billion, with projected surpluses stretching out toward the horizon. Yet over the course of the past 10 years, the previous administration and previous Congresses created an expensive new drug program, passed massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and funded two wars without paying for any of it – all of which was compounded by recession and by rising health care costs. As a result, when I first walked through the door, the deficit stood at $1.3 trillion, with projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.
This is a common refrain from the President and his team.
Argument: The previous administration and previous Congresses created an expensive new drug program – without paying for any of it.
- Response 1: Yes, we did. At the time, Congressional Democrats tried and failed to create an even more expensive new drug program without paying for it. (Mr. Obama was not in the Senate at the time.)
- Response 2: This Medicare drug program is ongoing. If the President thinks it is too expensive, then he should propose to make it less expensive. If instead he thinks it should be paid for, then he should propose other spending cuts or tax increases to offset the future costs. Pending health care legislation would instead expand this expensive benefit and pay for the expansion, but would do nothing about paying for the ongoing base costs to which the President is objecting. The past six years of deficit spending from this benefit is beyond President Obama’s control. The future spending is not. He could do this through reconciliation with 51 votes in the Senate.
Argument: The previous Administration and Congresses funded two wars without paying for it.
- Response 1: The Obama Administration is continuing these wars without paying for them, and expanding forces in Afghanistan without paying for that.
- Response 2: Two of those years were with Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. There were legislative attempts to end the Iraq efforts, but none to end the Afghanistan efforts. I don’t remember anyone in the Democratic majority Congress (including then-Senator Obama) making a serious run at cutting other spending or raising other taxes to offset the war costs. Last year Rep. Obey proposed a war tax and was quickly silenced by his colleagues.
Argument: The previous Administration cut taxes for the wealthy without paying for it.
- Response 1: Setting aside the mischaracterization “for the wealthy,” President Obama proposes to extend a significant portion of that tax relief “without paying for it.”
- Response 2: If all the Bush tax cuts are left in place bracket creep will soon cause total federal taxes to once again climb above their historic average of just over 18% of GDP. Repealing these tax cuts would mean the government would be taking far more from the private sector in taxes than it has in the past. I believe taxes are not too low.
- Response 3: Our medium-term and long-term deficit problems are driven by the growth of entitlement spending: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Raising taxes will not slow this spending, it will just buy us a few years of delay and slow economic growth.
Argument: The Bush policies caused a $200 B annual surplus and “projected surpluses stretching out toward the horizon” to turn into deficits.
- Response 1: This argument always relies on one specific forecast which later turned out to be inaccurate. In January 2001 CBO projected a 2002 surplus of $313 B. One year later they projected a 2002 deficit of $21 B. Of the $334 B decline, CBO said 73% was from “economic and technical changes” beyond President Bush’s control. The other 27% was the result of legislation. The impact of policy over time was larger than in 2002 (about 60% over ten years), but it is still incorrect to attribute it all to policy, rather than to a combination of policy and incorrect forecasting.
Argument: As a result of these policies, when President Obama took office, the deficit stood at $1.3 trillion.
- Response 1: The 2009 deficit President Obama inherited was large (CBO says $1.2 trillion rather than $1.3 trillion), but this is principally the result of a drop in revenues resulting from the severe recession beginning in September 2008, and from more than $400 B of projected 2009 spending for bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the big banks, and other large financial institutions. Before the recession and financial collapse of 2008, annual budget deficits during the Bush Administration averaged 2.0% of GDP (which would be about $290 B in 2009), including the higher spending and lower revenues from the drug benefit, Iraq and Afghanistan, and tax cuts. President Obama is using one horrible year to mischaracterize the other seven.
- Response 2: President Obama does not point out that his first major policy effort was to propose and enact an $862 B stimulus law without paying for it. (CBO has upped their estimate from the previous $787 B figure.) He did inherit a huge deficit, in large part resulting from the recession and bailout costs, and he immediately made it much bigger.
- Response 3: There is nothing the President can do about the past accumulation of debt. He and a majority of the House and Senate can reduce or even eliminate future deficits if they are willing to make hard choices. Even a 41-vote Republican Senate minority lacks the procedural tools to block a deficit reduction reconciliation bill.
Argument: When President Obama took office, he faced projected deficits of $8 trillion over the next decade.
- Response: There is no delicate way for me to say this. The $8 trillion number is made up. In January 2009 CBO projected deficits for the next decade of $3.1 trillion. The President’s first budget played games by redefining the baseline to make the starting point look as bad as possible so that Team Obama could claim their policies would reduce the deficit. Don’t get me wrong — $3.1 trillion of projected deficits is still a huge bad number. At the same time, $4.9 trillion is a lot of gaming.
This debate about the past can continue ad nauseam. At some point I hope it ends, but the President and his team bring it up at every opportunity. It is strange for a President to complain repeatedly about ten-year old policies and then not propose to change them. More importantly, this debate is not relevant to the problems we face today.
Yes, President Obama faced some enormous economic challenges early in his term. His predecessor did as well, even before the crisis of 2008: a bursting tech bubble leading to a recession in 2001, an economic seizure caused by 9/11, corporate governance scandals in 2002, a recession in 2002-2003, the economic uncertainty triggered by invading Iraq (this one was a policy choice), and eventually oil spiking above $100 per barrel.
I think it’s OK for a President to talk about the challenges he and the Nation face. It helps to set reasonable expectations. I think a President should propose solutions to those challenges and describe a brighter future that he hopes to deliver. I think it’s tacky and tiresome for a President to keep bashing his predecessor, especially more than a year after taking office. I acknowledge that my perspective on this point is biased by my professional past.
I also think this refrain weakens President Obama. He is portraying himself as a victim of forces that are beyond his control. A President should want people to focus on him and what he’s going to do, not on a comparison of him with someone else (anyone else). President Obama should want people talking about the Obama Agenda rather than about what happened ten years ago. Ten years ago.
I suspect that many Americans are tired of the blame game, especially more than one year into a new Administration. Whatever your view of President Bush, his policies, and their results, America needs to look forward. We have big challenges ahead of us, and we need to propose, debate, vote on, and then implement solutions.
More than the blame game, this is what concerns me about the President’s economic agenda. The President’s own projections show that his policies will not fix the future problems he identifies. Based entirely on numbers from the President’s just released budget, America will see the following results if all of his policies are implemented as proposed and work as projected:
- an average unemployment rate this year of 10.0 percent;
- an average unemployment rate in 2012 of 8.2 percent;
- a budget deficit this year of 8.3% of GDP;
- a budget deficit that at no point in the next decade dips below 3.6% of GDP;
- debt/GDP increasing from 64% now to 77% in ten years;
- the size of government, measured by both spending and taxes, climbing to historically high shares of GDP;
- three problems identified by the President (I do not necessarily agree that each of these is a problem):
- continuing the expensive Medicare drug program without paying for it;
- continuing the efforts in Iraq and expanding them in Afghanistan without paying for it;
- continuing much of the Bush tax relief without paying for it; and
- not measurably slowing the long-term growth of the major entitlement programs.
These are the results if the President’s policy program is successfully implemented.
I agree with the President that he inherited a tough situation, although I disagree with his explanation of the causes. Our fiscal car is driving toward a cliff. To avoid the cliff, the President might want to turn the wheel left, and I might want to turn right. At the same time, President Obama has the wheel. Complaining about the previous driver won’t prevent us from driving off the cliff. I hope the President will soon stop focusing on the last decade, and instead propose solutions for the next one.