This week, Rex Nutting of the MarketWatch caused a stir with his analysis correctly showing that federal spending has hardly budged under President Obama, rising at the slowest pace since the Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Predictably, James Pethokoukis of the conservative American Enterprise Institute cited the jump in Washington's spending as a percentage of the U.S. economy to comically "prove" that "actually, the Obama spending binge really did happen." Comically, that is, because Pethokoukis conveniently ignores the staggering economic contraction resulting from the Bush recession, with GDP only last year having returned to 2008 levels. Even less surprising, the perpetual tax-cutters of the right neglected to mention that thanks to the steep recession and the Treasury-draining Bush tax cuts, total federal tax revenues as a percentage of GDP hit their lowest level since 1950.
On January 7, 2009, Reuters reported that President Bush was bequeathing a $1.2 trillion budget deficit to his successor. That record gap was fueled by Bush's $700 billion TARP program and plummeting tax revenue due to the shrinking American economy. As Reuters noted, President-Elect Obama "said he expects deficits around $1 trillion for years, forcing tough budget choices."
Which is exactly what came to pass. But even with the 2009 stimulus program and the necessarily growing outlays for Medicaid, unemployment insurance, food stamps and other safety net programs, those trillion deficits had less to do with Barack Obama boosting spending than the dramatic loss of tax revenue. As former Reagan administration official Bruce Bartlett explained in October 2009:
According to the Congressional Budget Office's January 2009 estimate for fiscal year 2009, outlays were projected to be $3,543 billion and revenues were projected to be $2,357 billion, leaving a deficit of $1,186 billion. Keep in mind that these estimates were made before Obama took office, based on existing law and policy, and did not take into account any actions that Obama might implement...
Now let's fast forward to the end of fiscal year 2009, which ended on September 30. According to CBO, it ended with spending at $3,515 billion and revenues of $2,106 billion for a deficit of $1,409 billion.
To recap, the deficit came in $223 billion higher than projected [in January], but spending was $28 billion and revenues were $251 billion less than expected. Thus we can conclude that more than 100 percent of the increase in the deficit since January is accounted for by lower revenues. Not one penny is due to higher spending.
Obama's own tax cuts, the ones contained in the February 2009 stimulus bill, "reduced revenues in FY2009 by $98 billion over what would otherwise have been the case."