Cynthia Tucker: The Lie About Obama’s Big Spending
The last 10 days or so have left Joe Ricketts, founder of TD Ameritrade, in damage-control mode as he tries to distance himself from an incendiary, racially charged anti-Barack Obama ad campaign that would have featured the president’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. After two or three news cycles in which Ricketts was harshly criticized for his support of the ad’s early-stage development — even Mitt Romney, the presumed beneficiary, wanted nothing to do with it — Ricketts retreated, claiming he never liked the idea, either.
The retired billionaire will look for other ways to use his super PAC, the Ending Spending Action Fund, to pummel Obama, according to news reports. If the defensive explanations offered by Ricketts’ supporters are to be believed, he is upset with the president for what he sees as a track record of excessive, wasteful spending that will bankrupt the country. Indeed, that is a central argument of Romney’s campaign, echoed by all the usual suspects, including House Speaker John Boehner.
But there is an obvious hole in their narrative: Where the heck were these guys when George W. Bush was president?
Quiet as it’s kept, Obama has been no spendthrift. I know that has become conventional wisdom, a meme recycled endlessly in conservative circles and on the right-wing propaganda network, which includes Fox News. But the facts — those pesky, irritating, liberal-leaning facts borne out by government documents — tell another tale: Obama has curbed the federal spending that escalated under Bush.
Let’s revisit ancient history — the presidency of Bill Clinton. After Clinton persuaded Congress to raise taxes — allow me to repeat that: after Congress raised taxes — the nation enjoyed widespread prosperity with an unemployment rate that dropped below 5 percent. The federal budget was balanced and, by the late 1990s, the U.S. treasury began to accumulate a surplus, which could have been used to pay down the debt.
Enter George W. Bush, who campaigned on a pledge to cut taxes. Never mind the federal debt. A few forthright Republicans have conceded, in retrospect, that the monstrous tax cuts were a bad idea, but they are no longer serving. They didn’t dare say that when they were in office for fear of Grover Norquist, who has enforced a severe — and severely foolish — rule that forbids Republicans from raising taxes of any sort, ever.
The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery filed an exhaustive report on the politics of the Bush tax cuts last year. She wrote: “The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis. In January 2001, with the budget balanced … the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely. Voices of caution were swept aside in the rush to take advantage of the apparent bounty. Political leaders chose to cut taxes, jack up spending and, for the first time in U.S. history, wage two wars solely with borrowed funds.”
In addition to his wars, Bush signed off on the biggest new entitlement program since the 1960s: the Medicare prescription drug plan. It added $272 billion to the debt, Montgomery noted.
As debt mounted, Dick Cheney told then-Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who says he warned about the coming fiscal crisis, “You know, Paul, Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Where was Ricketts with his end-the-spending mantra? Where were the other fiscal hawks?
Let’s remember, too, that the massive Wall Street bailouts were orchestrated by the Bush administration. They were necessary, and Obama rightly supported them. But that spending goes to Bush’s ledger.
The federal deficit is massive, but Obama’s spending has been but a pittance compared to that of his predecessor. While Republicans like to scare voters with gross distortions of the Affordable Care Act, it is expected to cut the deficit slightly. There has been no massive expansion of the federal government workforce. There has been no spending spree.
Meanwhile, Romney supports the voodoo economics of his predecessors. He has said he will refuse to raise taxes while substantially increasing military spending. Sound familiar?
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at email@example.com.)