article

02.08.11

The Myth of Obama's Big Spending

Does the president really suffer from what House Speaker John Boehner calls a "spending illness"? Not according to an exclusive Newsweek-Daily Beast estimate of his outlays on new legislation since taking office.

Nothing unites Republicans quite like the unshakable belief that Barack Obama has become the Carrie Bradshaw of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, unable to stop himself from frittering away ridiculous sums of money on frivolous things. But what Republicans never mention when railing against Obama’s alleged fiscal recklessness is how much money he has spent, and what exactly he’s spent it on.

Obama has slashed one tax dollar for every dollar he’s spent on government programs.

To rectify the situation, Newsweek and The Daily Beast have come up with an exclusive estimate of the amount the president has spent on new legislation since taking office in January 2009. This isn’t the sum total of all government outlays; that number would include spending on mandatory entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which no president can control, as well as spending on income-support programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, which automatically increases as citizens get poorer (i.e., during a recession). Instead, we focused on the times when Obama decided to spend money that wouldn’t have been spent if the government had simply been humming along on autopilot.

What we—along with the economic analyst Loren Adler at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank founded in 2007 by Republicans Howard Baker and Bob Dole and Democrats Tom Daschle and George Mitchell—found may surprise people who see Obama as the Big Spender in Chief. Over the last two years, the president has decided to “spend” $21 billion more on tax cuts—the GOP’s preferred policy response to, well, everything—than on government programs.

The math isn’t particularly complicated. So far, the Obama administration has pushed for six major, immediate spending increases that aren’t offset elsewhere in the budget: the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (aka “ the stimulus package”), which had a 2009-10 price tag of $340 billion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office; the GM/Chrysler bailout and other portions of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which have largely been paid back ($25 billion); unemployment-insurance extensions ($67 billion); COBRA extensions ($9 billion); Cash for Clunkers ($3 billion); and loans to automakers for energy-efficiency improvements ($8 billion). That’s $452 billion. Factor in $296 billion in stimulus funds that have yet to be spent and $136 billion in refundable tax credits that passed in December as part of Congress’ bipartisan tax compromise, and you wind up with $884 billion on the spending side of the equation.

That’s a hefty sum of money. But here’s the interesting thing: Obama’s tax cuts have been even bigger. The first of them, $238 billion in cuts for taxpayers and businesses, came as part of the stimulus package. The second portion, $721 billion worth, arrived in December, again as part of Congress’ bipartisan tax compromise. Subtract $54 billion in forthcoming stimulus-related tax hikes, and you’ve got a grand total of $905 billion in tax cuts. In other words, Obama has slashed one tax dollar for every dollar he’s spent on government programs.

(One yet-to-be-implemented program worth considering: Obama’s new health-reform law. In March 2010, the CBO estimated that “Obamacare” would produce a 10-year spending increase of approximately $250 billion and a tax increase of slightly more than $400 billion, totals that will tilt the equilibrium between Obama’s spending and tax cutting toward the former in future years. The CBO also estimated that the new law will reduce the deficit by $118 billion over the same period.)

Regardless of reality, Republicans have a strong incentive to keep characterizing the president’s spending as an “out-of-control,” “unprecedented” “spree” that “threatens” “our children’s future.” During a recession, especially a Great Recession like the one we’re only just beginning to emerge from, individuals and families tend to react by spending less and saving more, so they balk, despite the dictates of Keynesian economics, when the federal government doesn’t do the same. Accusing Obama of wasting money is an easy way to score political points with voters who’ve been forced to pinch their own pennies in recent months.

But during an accounting argument, it’s useful to have real, live numbers to battle over. On the rare occasion Republicans do allude to real stats, they tend to shout about the growing short-term deficit, a problem that has a lot more to do with declining recession-era tax revenues and increasing safety-net outlays than anything Obama has done, or not done. Instead, Republicans should be referring to the amount the president has decided to spend so far: $884 billion. They can say it’s too much, and that a thriftier approach would’ve been better for the country. Democrats can reply that rescuing the U.S. economy from a second Great Depression for less than the price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was a relative bargain. Both sides, meanwhile, can debate the wisdom of cutting more than $900 billion in taxes while spending is going up. At least they’ll be arguing about facts, not fantasies.

Andrew Romano is a senior writer for Newsweek. He reports on politics, culture, and food for the print and Web editions of the magazine and appears frequently on CNN and MSNBC. His 2008 campaign blog, Stumper, won MINOnline's Best Consumer Blog award and was cited as one of the cycle's best news blogs by both Editor & Publisher and the Deadline Club of New York. Follow Andrew on Twitter.