Imagine someone reading The Washington Post today and coming across this chart cooked up by liberal columnist Ezra Klein and a liberal think tank:
Why, our imagined reader might assume that the George W. Bush administration racked up $5.1 trillion in debt during his eight years in office, while the Barack Obama administration, assuming a two-year term as Klein does, would compile just under $1 trillion.
They would be wrong, of course. Gross federal debt, as Klein notes in the accompanying story, has already risen by $4.7 trillion during Obama’s first three years in office. And over the next five years, it will likely go up another $5 trillion or so, according to both the Congressional Budget Office (alternate fiscal scenario) and the Office of Management and Budget. So by my math, that’s $9.7 trillion in added Obama debt vs. $5.1 trillion for Bush.
But Klein believes Obama, the American president, should be absolved of any blame for those massive deficits, beyond the $983 billion. Why? Because his new policy initiatives, as the chart indicates, only add up to a tenth of the total debt that will likely be added under his watch:
How much has Obama added to the debt, anyway? There are two answers: more than $4 trillion, or about $983 billion. The first answer is simple and wrong. The second answer is more complicated but a lot closer to being right.
First of all, Obama wants to extend the Bush tax cuts for the the middle class, estimated to “cost” nearly $3 trillion over ten years. So you should add $1.5 trillion or so to Obama’s tab using Klein’s fiscal logic. Now we’re up to $2.5 trillion. And Klein also gives Obama credit for $500 billion in budget cuts—via the Budget Control Act—that would not be scheduled to occur without the debt ceiling fight with the GOP. But that’s all really beside the point. Let’s pretty much take the chart as is.
What Klein forgets is that Obama isn’t helpless here. He’s not a victim. There’s nothing stopping him from proposing deep spending cuts to reduce the continuing deluge of debt. The true cost of Obama’s fiscal policies isn’t just what he proposes but what he doesn’t propose. What is the cost of Obama’s decision to reject the findings of his own debt panel? If the Bowles-Simpson plan kicked in this year, projected deficits would fall by $3 trillion through the end of Obama’s second term. Should the president not be blamed for that, blamed for not leading, blamed for not ever proposing a long-term budget plan like Representative Paul Ryan has?
And if budget deficits are made worse by the economy’s continuing underperformance, should Obama also not bear some measure of responsibility for that, too? Recall that Vice President Joe Biden said the trillion-dollar stimulus would “literally drop kick us out of the recession.” But in the new book “Money Well Spent? The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History,” ProPublica reporter Michael Grabell concludes that “the stimulus ultimately failed to do what America expected it to do — bring about a strong, sustainable recovery. The drop kick was shanked.”
If only the cost of Obamanomics were a mere $983 billion. That would be the bargain of the century.