Now we are treated to the semiannual spectacle of watching Republicans pretend they care about the deficit. They will hammer at this repeatedly as discussion progresses on the president’s budget, which projects a deficit of more than $1 trillion for this year and $901 billion for next. Obama and the Democrats generally have a history of quaking when this deficit talk starts up. But the best thing they can do now is stick to their guns and quote Dick Cheney: “Deficits don’t matter.” Growth matters. And for growth, we need investment.
First, the Republican hypocrisy. I hope you are aware by now that they don’t actually care about deficits. They just care about money being spent on things they don’t like, which outside of overpriced ships the Navy probably doesn’t need and more reinforced steel for the border fence includes pretty much everything. If, say, instead of seeking to spend more money for transportation, Barack Obama had proposed cutting the top marginal tax rate down to 8 percent, well, that would have had a completely disastrous impact on future deficits. But you wouldn’t have seen Republicans complaining about that, because the rich deserve more of their money back.
You also didn’t see Republicans complaining about deficits when George W. Bush was running them up. Oh, a few did. But the protests were infrequent and mousy. By and large, Republicans shuffled along. It is astonishing, isn’t it, to think back on the prescription-drug benefit from 2003. An unfunded, roughly $500 billion expansion of socialized medicine (Medicare), and Tom DeLay kept the floor open for three extra hours so that the small number of Republicans who tried to take the Republican position on this could be browbeaten into voting with the White House. That episode, engineered by DeLay, was as close as we’ve come to legislative fascism in this country in a long, long time, both in the sense of the strong-arm tactics used and in the way it posited that day is night and black is white.
Of course, in 2003 the deficit was “just” $374 billion. This, remember, was only two years after Bush took office, met by a surplus of $237 billion. So he added $611 billion to the deficit in two short years, by diddling around with indefensible tax cuts for the wealthy (remember how they goosed the economy? Didn’t think so) and passing the aforementioned Medicare expansion to shore up the senior vote. Admittedly, Obama outpaced Bush. He added $1 trillion in a year. But we all know why. Well, some of us know why. The economy was going to die, and it needed money. Wall Street and the banks didn’t have it, so the government had to supply it.
The only problem with this was that it didn’t supply enough. I’ve started reading Noam Scheiber’s The Escape Arti$ts, his new book about the Obama economic team’s successes and failures. Scheiber writes that Christina Romer, the administration’s first chief economist, got all the numbers on the economy from the Fed and other reputable sources and set out to determine how much federal intervention, free of political considerations, would be appropriate to prop up the collapsing economy. The number she and her staff settled on—$1.8 trillion—was so high that she didn’t even dare mention it at meetings. Obama, of course, did less than half that, which was the maximum that was politically possible.
After the heavy artillery fire he took for that, Obama decided he had to placate the deficit hawks, at least rhetorically, and so he did that for a while. But that collapsed, partly because the Republicans wouldn’t consider tax increases as part of the mix, and partly because he and the White House eventually figured out that trying to be moderate on these issues was both bad substance and lousy politics. It’s bad substance because, as much as it infuriates some people, government spending helps keep us afloat in hard times. And cutting that spending causes harm. For example, we are down about 610,000 government employees from the day Obama took office. Most of those are at the state and local level, and while it’s hard to say how many are a result of the drastic cuts in federal aid to states, certainly many layoffs stem from budget cuts. Those cuts reduce the deficit, but they add directly to the jobless rolls. Is that what we’ve needed for these past two years? Obviously not.
And it’s bad politics because, as the White House now seems to grasp, it’s time to draw contrasts, and the public is largely on Obama’s side. People kinda-sorta say they care about the deficit, but they don’t, really, in large numbers. And to the extent that they do care, they’d rather raise taxes on the wealthy than cut programs.
When the economy gets better, the deficit will start to heal itself. If the economy is truly picking up in the way the January jobs numbers suggest—and if unemployment goes down to around 8 percent by the end of the year—we’ll be poised for a recovery that will add jobs and tax revenue. At least, that is, until the next Republican president comes along and slashes taxes on multimillionaires, blowing another huge hole in the deficit (Mitt Romney’s hole, for example, would be $600 billion in 2015 alone). If Romney is actually elected, the same Republicans who are going to spend the next few months nattering about Obama’s irresponsibility will be marveling at President Romney’s courage.
But Obama standing firm against the deficit hypocrites will render a Romney presidency even more unlikely than it already is. Republicans use deficit politics to scare Democrats, and Democrats often respond exactly as Republicans hope. It’s time they stopped being afraid.