Earlier today, President Obama gave a speech highlighting his new 2012 budget proposal.
"(W)hen I was sworn in as President, I pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of my first term," he reminded the audience. "The budget I’m proposing today meets that pledge -– and puts us on a path to pay for what we spend by the middle of the decade."
The second part of the claim is easily disposed of. Most people would take "pay for what we spend" to mean a balanced budget. But by 2015, his administration is still projecting a deficit of $607 billion. I won't wager a guess as to what else he may have been meaning to say, as I'm only looking at what his plain words convey to any normal person.
The first part of the claim gets a bit trickier, because it's a open to debate as to how we define "first term." The issue is that the fiscal year actually begins in October, so when Obama was sworn in, he was nearly four months into the 2009 fiscal year, and by the end of his first term, he'll be nearly four months into 2013. So the question is, what is the fair way to gauge his fiscal performance?
One way to look at it is to say that 2008 was the last year that was entirely outside of his control, and 2012 is the last full year of his first term. Under that mode of analysis, it's not even close -- the deficit will have more than doubled from $459 billion to $1.1 trillion.
Of course, Obama would say that isn't really fair, because the 2008 budget didn't take into account the economic crisis he inherited, and the 2009 budget was leftover from the Bush administration. So let's say we started in 2009 and ended in 2012. That still wouldn't get us there ($1.4 trillion deficit to $1.1 trillion deficit).
No doubt, Obama wants the comparison to be between 2009 and 2013, the year he "inherited" to the final budget year beginning in his first term. The problem with this analysis is that the 2009 budget was historically high, and though it would have been high no matter who was president given the economic downturn, Obama's policies clearly added to that deficit. For instance, the economic stimulus bill added $200 billion to that year's budget. So it isn't really fair to begin a presidency with a historically high deficit, jack up the deficit even further, and then claim to be a deficit warrior when the deficit retreats to a still awful level, but one that's less bad then the record levels we saw a few years earlier. With that said, if you compare these years, you get closer to the number Obama is going for as his administration projects the deficit to fall from $1.412 trillion in 2009 to $768 billion in 2013 -- but that's still $62 billion shy of being cut in half.
I put together the following table of deficits from 2008 through 2013 so you can choose your own adventure.
Even if you want to cut him some slack on this one (after all, what's $62 billion here or there in a 2013 budget that's projected at $3.77 trillion?), politically speaking, Obama won't gain any traction with his argument. The reason is that the Congressional Budget Office will release the actual deficit numbers for 2012 in October, just a few weeks before the general election. Assuming it goes as the White House expects, that number will be $1.1 trillion. So Republicans will have the talking point that in every year Obama's been in office, the deficit has exceeded $1 trillion. And Obama will be left arguing that it's projected to go down the following year -- and only then based on assumptions about the economy and what will happen with the Bush tax cuts. Who is the public going to believe?
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