Barack Obama: 'We don't have a spending problem'


The media portrayal of the fiscal cliff standoff (and the debt-ceiling talks from which it sprang) generally portrayed President Barack Obama and the Democrats as pragmatists attempting to negotiate with intransigent Republican ideologues. But as ever, the stance of non-ideological problem-solving itself is rich with ideological content. For the latest example read Stephen Moore's Wall Street Journal interview with Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio).

What stunned House Speaker John Boehner more than anything else during his prolonged closed-door budget negotiations with Barack Obama was this revelation: "At one point several weeks ago," Mr. Boehner says, "the president said to me, 'We don't have a spending problem.' " […]

The president's insistence that Washington doesn't have a spending problem, Mr. Boehner says, is predicated on the belief that massive federal deficits stem from what Mr. Obama called "a health-care problem." Mr. Boehner says that after he recovered from his astonishment—"They blame all of the fiscal woes on our health-care system"—he replied: "Clearly we have a health-care problem, which is about to get worse with ObamaCare. But, Mr. President, we have a very serious spending problem." He repeated this message so often, he says, that toward the end of the negotiations, the president became irritated and said: "I'm getting tired of hearing you say that."

If this quote is accurate, it is both stunning and unsurprising. Stunning, because of this chart:

Note how federal spending, adjusted for inflation, zoomed between 2001 and 2010 on such non-health-related categories as military (70.5%), "other" (64.1%), and non-defense discretionary (55.9%). Overall federal spending has exploded, from $1.77 trillion in fiscal year 2000 to $3.72 trillion in fiscal 2010. If Washington had pegged federal government growth since 2000 to the rates of inflation and population growth, we would be spending well under $3 trillion today, and talking about what to do with the surplus.

At the same time, Obama's alleged quote is unsurprising, because a vast swath of Democrats well and truly believe that spending is not a problem.

Here's Steve Benen, at Rachel Maddow's blog: "Sorry, Boehner, spending isn't the problem." Or New York magazine's Jonathan Chait: "There really isn't money to be cut everywhere….The spending cuts aren't there because they can't be found." Or Mother Jones' Kevin Drum: "We don't have a spending problem. We have an aging problem."

Combine that with the widespread belief, articulated most recently by Robert Reich, that we have no entitlements problem either, and you get a clearer picture of how federal spending could almost double in a decade in the face of progressive complaints about "austerity": It's because Democrats are in denial about the true cost of their (yes) ideological commitments. If we taxed Americans enough to cover the cost (or even 90 percent of the cost) of what Democrats consider the minimal level of government, the result would be recession. That should, but won't, give big-government apologists pause.

And yes, as we've been reminding you for years, too many Republicans (and John Boehner in particular) have for too long effectively agreed with Jonathan Chait: There's nothing we can cut!

For an alternative view, read Reason's November 2010 issue on "How to Slash Government Before it Slashes You."