“What we know,” said President Obama to a business group a few days ago, “is that our — our fiscal problems are not short-term deficits. Our discretionary budget, that portion of the federal budget that isn’t defense or Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, the entitlement programs, is at its smallest level in my lifetime, probably since Dwight Eisenhower. We are not lavishly spending on a whole bunch of social programs out there.”
You could call this Obama’s version of the old joke: “Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Saying “we are not lavishly spending on a whole bunch of social programs” — aside from Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid — is like saying the Titanic had a great voyage, aside from the iceberg. We spend so much on those three social programs that, if current trends continue, outlays on them plus interest on the national debt will consume every last federal dollar in a little more than a decade.
But then it isn’t really just those three programs, is it? From 2000 to 2012, federal spending on food stamps increased 400 percent. Not double. Not triple. Four hundred percent. So aside from the big three plus food stamps, we’re not lavishly spending on a whole bunch of social programs.
Federal housing assistance has grown from less than $30 billion (in constant dollars) in 2000 to nearly $60 billion today. Aside from that, though, we’re not lavishly spending on a whole bunch of social programs.
The federal government has 79 different means-tested anti-poverty programs providing food assistance, educational aid, housing, cash transfers, utility assistance and other social services. Aside from that, though, we are not lavishly etc. etc.
There are 47 different federal job-training programs. But aside from that. . . .
Obama also mentioned defense spending. Adjusted for inflation, defense spending rose 64 percent from 2002 to 2011. But — well, you know.
The president says discretionary spending is at the smallest level “in my lifetime, probably since Dwight Eisenhower.” (Obama was born only a year and a half after the Eisenhower administration ended.) Discretionary spending might have fallen as a share of the budget, but that is only because so-called mandatory spending — i.e., spending driven by formulas Congress can change if it chooses — has grown so rapidly. It certainly isn’t smaller in real terms.
Using constant 2005 dollars, defense discretionary spending in 1962 was $52.5 billion. Last year it was $670.5 billion.
In 1962, non-defense discretionary spending was $19.5 billion. Last year, it was $615.5 billion.
Aside from that, though, the president was absolutely right.
Obama’s aside-from-that approach extends well beyond fiscal analysis. When insurance companies began canceling policies that did not meet new requirements under the Affordable Care Act, critics pointed out that the president had said people could keep their insurance if they liked it — not just once, but dozens of times.
Fed up with being quoted accurately, Obama tried to weasel out of his repeated promise by saying: “What we said was, you can keep [your plan] if it hasn’t changed since the law was passed.” (PolitiFact gave him a pants-on-fire rating for that howler.) Translation: Aside from that, you can keep your plan.
Back in the spring, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, was asked during congressional testimony if the NSA collects “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” Replied Clapper: “No sir.”
We now know the NSA collects metadata about millions of Americans’ telephone calls. Also, millions of contact lists from personal email accounts. Also, millions of buddy lists from instant-messaging services. Lots of audio and video chats, photographs and documents, too. It even had a test project to collect data on American citizens’ cell-phone locations.