Politics & Policy

Spending? What Spending?

Obama denies his fiscal record.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt never denied that he created Social Security. Lyndon Baines Johnson didn’t forswear any responsibility for Medicaid. Ronald Reagan never argued that his defense buildup didn’t happen.

The Obama White House, in contrast, wants to wish away the historic federal spending that is one of its signature accomplishments.

White House press secretary Jay Carney, whose job it is to dodge questions and elide facts without betraying any embarrassment, urged reporters the other day to steer clear of “the BS that you hear about spending and fiscal constraint with regard to this administration.” Not one to be outclassed by his press secretary, President Barack Obama kept up the edifying livestock theme by calling Mitt Romney’s attacks on his deficit spending “a cow pie of distortion.”

The White House has a deeply conflicted relationship to its own record. It is saddled with a bad case of spender’s denial, a rare psychological disorder afflicting committed Keynesians facing reelection at a time of record debt.

#ad#On the one hand, spending is the lifeblood of “Forward.” It saved us from another Great Depression. It is forging a glorious new future of green energy. It is the only thing standing between the American public and the untold devastation of the Paul Ryan budget. How do we know? Because President Obama says so.

On the other hand, the deficits and the debt that come with all this spending are alarming and unpopular. So Obama calls himself the most fiscally conservative president in more than half a century. When the president isn’t extolling his transformative expenditures, he has a Walter Mitty life as the second coming of Dwight Eisenhower. He needs to consult an accountant and a therapist, and not necessarily in that order.

If you torture the numbers just the right way — the Office of Management and Budget meets the Spanish Inquisition — you can come up with a 0.4 percent rate of spending growth during the Obama administration. To get there, you have to ignore part of the stimulus (on grounds that Obama didn’t have complete control of the budget in 2009) and play games with the bailouts (crediting Obama with spending cuts when they are paid back). Even fact-checkers with mainstream-media outfits have merrily stomped all over the statistical legerdemain.

Andrew Taylor of the Associated Press writes that “Obama bears the chief responsibility for an 11 percent, $59 billion increase in non-defense spending in 2009. Then there’s a 9 percent, $109 billion increase in combined defense and non-defense appropriated outlays in 2010, a year for which Obama is wholly responsible.” Spending growth slowed after that, under the influence of the very same congressional Republicans that President Obama excoriates for not allowing him to spend more.

There’s no doubt that the president inherited a fiscal nightmare. Spending spiked as the economy tanked. His response has been to spend yet more every single year. Spending was $2.98 trillion in 2008, and the president’s budget calls for it to hit $3.72 trillion in 2013. As a percentage of GDP, spending has been at post–World War II highs throughout his term. If fiscal probity is truly his aim, President Obama is a miserable failure of a skinflint.

The laughable claim to fiscal restraint is meant to recapture some of Obama’s former ideological indistinctness. Back in 2008, he could say — with no direct evidence to contradict him — that he wanted a net cut in federal spending, in his guise as a post-partisan pragmatist. That was several $1 trillion deficits ago. Now, the president can say whatever he wants, but his budgets are a matter of public record.

He should embrace those budgets in all their Keynesian majesty. They are one of his most consequential contributions to our national life, and a true expression of his philosophical core and that of his party. In his tawdry denials, the president almost acts as if $5.5 trillion in new debt were something to be ashamed of.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2012 King Features Syndicate

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via email: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. 

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