The Spectacle Blog

Why Obama focuses on the deficit rather than total spending

By on 3.25.09 | 4:55PM

Last night's press conference provided another teachable moment as to why the focus should not be on "the deficit" but rather total government spending as a percentage of GDP.

When Obama was challenged on the massive size of his budget and the burden placed on future generations, he immediately pivoted to a discussion of deficits rather than the total dead weight cost of the government as a percentage of GDP:

CNN's Ed Henry:  "You keep saying that you've inherited a big fiscal mess. Do you worry, though, that your daughters, not to mention the next president, will be inheriting an even bigger fiscal mess if the spending goes out of control?"

OBAMA: "Of course I do, Ed, which is why we're doing everything we can to reduce that deficit."

By repeatedly trumpeting the claim his budget will cut the deficit in half in five years, Obama distracts from the most meaningful metric:  Total government spending as a percentage of GDP will rise to a crushing 24.5 percent in 2019.  The average of the past 40 years is 20.7 percent.

Obama's predecessor George W. Bush did not help matters by ceding the deficits-are-the-problem frame to those wishing to increase the role of government in our lives.

Focusing on the deficit is like focusing on the visible tip of an iceberg rather than the unseen (and in this case, growing) danger beneath.  Obama's maritime metaphor in his concluding statement --"This is a big ocean liner. It's not a speedboat" - reminds us the Titanic was sunk by the iceberg itself, not the visible tip.

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