When White House press secretary Jay Carney stood up in front of reporters and said, "Do not buy into the B.S. that you hear about spending and fiscal constraint with regard to this administration," I naturally assumed someone would come out with a hook and drag him away before sending him on a long vacation to recover from whatever was addling his mind.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and Carney's attempt at celebrating the administration's budget record—not excusing, mind you, but celebrating—amounted to climbing the fence into the lion enclosure at the zoo.
When you're running a deficit of over a trillion dollars for the fourth consecutive year, prudence counsels that you stay as far away from the subject as possible, rather than seek out opportunities to impale yourself on it. Yet even the president has been boasting of his restraint.
Carney cited an online opinion piece by Rex Nutting in MarketWatch that carried the puzzling headline "Obama spending binge never happened." This is the equivalent of saying Barack Obama wasn't born in Hawaii, and maybe Nutting figured that if some people will believe that, they will believe anything.
He noted that the big jump in spending occurred in fiscal year 2009, which began under George W. Bush and was mostly the product of decisions made before Obama arrived. Assessing events since then, he concluded that "under Obama, federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s."
These are claims that are factual without being entirely true. A lot of the 2009 increase was the result of Bush's Troubled Asset Relief Program, which had the support of Obama and which inflated short-run outlays—though most of the funds were soon repaid. Obama's subsequent budgets benefited from the repayment, even as his press secretary absolves him of responsibility for the loan.
But Obama did his part in running up the debt. As an analysis by the Associated Press said, he was largely to blame for an 11 percent increase in non-defense spending in 2009—plus a 9 percent boost the next year, which is all on him.
What the administration also neglects to mention is that cutting the rate of growth is not genuine fiscal restraint. In 2009, outlays jumped from 20.8 percent of gross domestic product to 25.2 percent of GDP. Since then, though, they have stayed above 24 percent of GDP, still much higher than the previous norm.
Under Obama, the government is not losing weight. It is getting fatter less rapidly than before. Dieters normally don't claim success when their pants keep getting bigger.
But if there is anyone who has no grounds to fault the president for fiscal recklessness, it's Republicans. The Wall Street Journal, however, recently ran an editorial titled "Obama's Debt Boom," which said that when it comes to debt, Obama "is taking America to a place it has never been."
Maybe so, but he couldn't have done it without the GOP. Under Bush, the budget surplus—yes, we once had a federal budget surplus—vanished, giving way to repeated deficits running into the hundreds of billions.
Under Bush, the publicly held federal debt more than doubled. One reason Obama has run deficits is that he has to cover the interest payments for all the borrowing done before he took over.
Bush, it's worth noting, didn't launch his spending spree in his final fiscal year. He did it in his first. Between 2001 and 2008, federal spending rose by 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation, and went from 18.2 percent of GDP to 20.8 percent—a 14 percent increase. Oh, and then there was the 2009 deluge of red ink, most of which came out Bush's hose.
Even those numbers fail to capture the full splendor of his fiscal explosion. Bush brought about the biggest new entitlement program since Lyndon Johnson's day, in the form of the Medicare prescription drug program.
It cost $67 billion last year, but that's nothing compared to the long-term impact—which was to burden future taxpayers with $7 trillion in unfunded obligations. Obama has spent like there's no tomorrow, but even he has nothing to match that.
Yet both Obama and his Republican opponent will spend the next five months promising they will be stingy stewards of the public purse. You can believe that, if you were born yesterday.
Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.