Jeffrey H. Anderson is a former professor of American government and political philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy and the director of the Benjamin Rush Society.
In his State of the Union address tonight, President Obama will reportedly issue a call for "responsible" efforts to reduce deficits (while simultaneously calling for new federal spending). In light of the President's expected rhetorical nod to fiscal responsibility, it's worth keeping in mind his record on deficits to date. When President Obama took office two years ago, the national debt stood at $10.626 trillion. It now stands at $14.071 trillion — a staggering increase of $3.445 trillion in just 735 days (about $5 billion a day).
To put that into perspective, when President George W. Bush took office, our national debt was $5.768 trillion. By the time Bush left office, it had nearly doubled, to $10.626 trillion. So Bush's record on deficit spending was not good at all: During his presidency, the national debt rose by an average of $607 billion a year. How does that compare to Obama? During Obama's presidency to date, the national debt has risen by an average of $1.723 trillion a year — or by a jaw-dropping $1.116 trillion more, per year, than it rose even under Bush.
In fairness, however, Obama can't rightly be held accountable for the 2009 budget, which he didn't sign (although he did sign a $410 billion pork-laden omnibus spending bill for that year, which is nevertheless tallied in Bush's column). Rather, Obama's record to date should really be based on actual and projected spending in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 (plus the $265 billion portion of the economic "stimulus" package, which he initiated and signed, that was spent in 2009 (Table S-10), while Bush's should be based on 2002-09 (with the exception of that same $265 billion, which was in no way part of the 2009 budgetary process).
How do Bush and Obama compare on closer inspection? Just about like they do on an initial glance. According to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, during his eight fiscal years, Bush ran up a total of $3.283 trillion in deficit spending (p. 22). In his first two fiscal years, Obama will run up a total of $2.826 trillion in deficit spending ($1.294 trillion in 2010, an estimated $1.267 trillion in 2011 (p. 23), and the $265 billion in "stimulus" money that was spent in 2009). Thus, Bush ran up an average of $410 billion in deficit spending per year, while Obama is running up an average of $1.413 trillion in deficit spending per year — or $1.003 trillion a year more than Bush.
Obama, of course, has said the economy made him do it. But the average inflation-adjusted deficits through Obama's first two fiscal years will be more than ten times higher than the average inflation-adjusted deficit during the Great Depression. Even as a percentage of the gross domestic product, the average deficits in Obama's first two fiscal years will more than three times higher the average deficit during the Great Depression. The fact that Obama's deficits have, by any standard, more than tripled those of the Great Depression, cannot convincingly be blamed on the current recession.
It's not often that one gets to hear a call for "responsible" fiscal stewardship from someone whose deficit spending is outpacing President Bush's by more than $1 trillion a year — yet that's apparently what we'll get to hear tonight. But President Obama's actions tell another, far clearer, story about his commitment to deficit reduction.