Listening to Republicans in Congress wailing incessantly about our spendthrift culture raises a nagging question: What would they do, besides talking, if they actually wanted to reduce federal deficits and, eventually, the national debt?
First, they would admit that President Obama’s policies, including health care reform, have already reduced deficits sharply, as promised. Second, they would desist from their hostage-taking tactics over the debt ceiling, which have only damaged America’s economy and international prestige. And then they would finally admit that basic investment and job creation, rather than cutting food stamps, represent the best way to reduce both deficits and debt, indeed the only way — through economic growth.
Fortunately for those Republicans and sadly for everyone else, the American public has little comprehension of current fiscal realities. Most people don’t even know that the deficit is shrinking rather than growing. According to a poll released on Feb. 4 by The Huffington Post and You.gov, well over half believe the budget deficit has increased since 2009, while less than 20 percent are aware that it has steadily decreased. (Another 14 percent believe the deficit has remained constant during Obama’s presidency.)
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it is Republican voters, misinformed by Fox News, who most fervently and consistently insist on these mistaken ideas, with 85 percent telling pollsters that the deficit has increased. Less than a third of Democrats gave that answer. But nearly 60 percent of independent voters agree with the Republicans on that question and only 30 percent of Democrats understand the truth – an implicit repudiation, as The Huffington Post noted, of the president’s political decision to prioritize deficit reduction rather than job creation.
The facts are simple enough even for a Tea Party politician to understand. The federal deficit reached its peak – in dollar amount and as a share of the national economy – in 2009, which happens to be the year that Obama took office. Thanks to the profligate war and tax policies of the Bush administration — which undid the fiscal stabilization achieved under President Clinton — the Treasury had no financial margin when the Great Recession struck. Federal spending required to avoid another (and possibly far worse) worldwide Depression, combined with declining tax revenues that resulted from economic stagnation and tax cuts, all led inevitably to that record deficit.