In June 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama declared that President Bush had run “the most fiscally irresponsible administration in history.” At the time Obama made that statement, the highest deficit run up by the Bush administration was $412.7 billion. Today, President Obama released his administration’s new 10-year budget outlook and it never shows an annual deficit lower than $739 billion.
To be clear, this isn’t meant as a defense of the Bush administration’s fiscal record, which I view as completely atrocious. The point is that as horrendous as the Bush administration’s record is, the Obama administration is far worse, even if you give Obama some leeway. Below, I made a number of calculations that cast an escalating amount of blame on Bush, and Obama still ends up as the worse spender.*
The years 2009 through 2011 are projected to be historically devastating from a budgetary standpoint because of the ongoing economic crisis. There’s a big partisan argument about who should be blamed for the deficits during this period, so in the first scenario, let’s just throw these out of the equation to get a better sense of spending during more typical years. If you do this, the average annual deficit during the Bush years (2001 through 2008) was 2 percent of GDP, or less than half the 4.04 percent average annual deficits anticipated by the Obama administration for 2012 through 2020. If you look at federal spending as a percentage of GDP (which I think is a better measure because it tells us the actual cost of the federal government to taxpayers), Obama also comes off worse – averaging 23.1 percent annually compared to 19.6 percent during the Bush years.
Let’s just say we think that Obama and Bush should share the blame, and so instead of eliminating the three roughest years, we factor 2009 into Bush’s performance, while saying Obama’s responsibility truly starts in 2010. By that measure, Bush’s average annual deficits jump to 2.9 percent of GDP, but Obama’s projected shortfalls soar to 5 percent per year. In spending terms, Bush’s average rises to 20.2 percent, but Obama’s is higher still at 23.5 percent.
Let’s say we decide to be even more charitable, and accept the Obama administration’s argument that they were dealt a very bad hand, and that all of the stimulus spending and bailouts were a direct result of Bush’s failed economic policies. This would mean defining the Bush years so broadly as to include 2001 through 2011 and transferring Obama’s three worst budget years to the Bush record.
Under this scenario, from a deficit perspective, Obama finally comes off looking slightly better. On average, I calculated deficits at 4.07 percent of GDP for 2001 through 2011, compared to a forecast of 4.04 percent from 2012 through 2020. However, from a spending perspective, Obama still comes off worse. During the “Bush years” broadly defined, the spending average is 21.1 percent of GDP, while spending during the rest of the years projected under Obama’s budget (2012 through 2020), averages 23.1 percent of GDP. So in other words, even if we pretend that the economic stimulus bill counts as money spent by Bush, Obama is still a bigger spender. While that 2 percent difference in spending as a percentage of GDP may not sound like a lot, keep in mind that in dollar terms, the GDP is projected to be a combined $181.3 trillion during the years 2012 through 2020, according to the OMB. So 2 percent represents $3.6 trillion.
* I used Congressional Budget Office data for the years 2001 through 2009, and projections from Obama’s own Office of Management and Budget fro 2010 through 2020.