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A Historic Flood of Red Ink

Obama’s mind-boggling budget

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By JEFFREY H. ANDERSON
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After proposing his third straight budget calling for more than $1 trillion in deficit spending—no other president has ever proposed even half that much (although, in his last year, President George W. Bush did end up spending that much)—President Obama complained to reporters, “You guys are pretty impatient.” In truth, Obama has gotten way too much of a pass on his deficit spending, which is so far outside of America’s historical norms as to be mind-boggling. 

A Historic Flood of Red Ink

Zach Franzen

In a fair accounting, President Obama is responsible (along with the then-Democratic Congress) for the $1.3 trillion in deficit spending in 2010 and the estimated $1.6 trillion in deficit spending in 2011. He is responsible for the projected $1.1 trillion in deficit spending in his recent budget proposal. He is also responsible for the approximately $200 billion that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that his economic “stimulus” added to the deficit in 2009. 

He should not get credit, moreover, for the $149 billion in TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) repayments made in 2010 and 2011 to cover most of the $154 billion in bank loans that remained unpaid at the end of the 2009 fiscal year—loans that count against President Bush’s 2009 deficit tally. The Treasury Department says that all but $5 billion of the TARP bank loans has now been repaid. The portion of repayments that was for loans issued in 2009 should be deducted from Bush’s deficit tally, not credited to Obama as deficit savings. 

Add it all up, and Obama is responsible for $4.4 trillion in actual or projected deficit spending in just three years in office.

Let’s try to put that into historical perspective (the source for all of these figures is the White House Office of Management and Budget’s historical tables):

* In actual dollars, President Obama’s $4.4 trillion in deficit spending in just three years is 37 percent higher than the previous record of $3.2 trillion (held by President George W. Bush) in deficit spending for an entire presidency. It’s no small feat to demolish an 8-year record in just 3 years.

* In inflation-adjusted dollars, President Obama’s $3.8 trillion (in constant fiscal-year 2005 dollars) in deficit spending in just three years is nearly double our $2 trillion (in constant fiscal-year 2005 dollars) in deficit spending in the five fiscal years during which we were fighting World War II (FY 1942-46). It’s no small feat to nearly double the United States’ inflation-adjusted deficits during the largest conflict in human history, and to do so in less time than it took American GIs to fight that two-front war. 

* As a percentage of the gross domestic product (GDP), President Obama’s average annual deficit spending is 9.7 percent of GDP. That’s higher than during any single year of the Great Depression, the Cold War, the Korean War, or Vietnam. In fact, the only deficits in more than 200 years of American history that have exceeded even 6 percent of GDP have all involved either the Civil War, World War I, World War II, or President Obama.

* In average annual deficit spending as a percentage of GDP, the nearby chart shows how President Obama stacks up against other presidents who have served during the past four decades.

* The Obama deficit legacy, moreover, will be felt well beyond his tenure in office, especially if that tenure extends beyond a single term. First, Obama’s spending through 2012 essentially doesn’t include Obama-care. The CBO projects that Obama-care will increase spending by more than $2 trillion in the overhaul’s real first decade (2014 to 2023). That’s more than $2 trillion that could -otherwise be used to pay down the debt, rather than allowing the debt to rise continually and then piling a massive new entitlement program on top of it.

Second, President Obama’s gargantuan deficit spending will hamstring future efforts to make ends meet. Under Obama’s own projections, interest payments on the debt are on course to triple from 2010 (his first budgetary year) to 2018, climbing from $196 billion to $685 billion annually. Under his projections for 2018, interest payments on the debt will exceed all defense spending, including wartime spending. Think about that: In the first budgetary year after the next presidential term, our creditors are projected to get more money than our military. 

At the end of 2008, just before President Obama took office, the national debt was $9.986 trillion and 69 percent of GDP. Under his projections, eight years later it will be $20.825 trillion and 104 percent of GDP. That’s right: Our debt will soon exceed our national economic output for an entire year. And that’s even if you believe the president’s rosy projections of 4 percent real GDP growth over the next four years, considerably higher than the 2.7 percent achieved over the past quarter-century and the 3.2 percent over the past half-century.

To correct our course, we need to advance real entitlement reform and repeal the looming entitlement that could be the boulder that breaks the camel’s back: Obamacare. House Republicans need to produce a serious budget that offers real entitlement reform, as they appear poised to do. Actually enacting entitlement reform, however, will require presidential leadership. The most effective champions of bold fiscal prudence on Capitol Hill and in the statehouses, respectively, have been Representative Paul Ryan and Governor Chris Christie. In the wake of President Obama’s wildly unprecedented deficit spending, such leadership is now needed at the presidential level.

Jeffrey H. Anderson was the senior speechwriter for Secretary Mike Leavitt at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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