The Truth About the President and The Deficit, Part 2

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By Bob Cesca: Last week I wrote a column here about the president's record on the deficit. The responses I received from anti-Obama Republicans vividly illustrated the far-right's inability to grasp reality and, in their defense, the degree to which they've been deceived by their leadership -- be it Mitt Romney or Rush Limbaugh or anyone in-between.

At the risk of repeating myself, I'd like to again emphasize a key point in what I wrote here. And since this was kind of a buried lead in the piece, it's worth breaking it out as its own thing.

FACT: President Barack Obama has cut the deficit by $312 billion from Bush's final deficit through the deficit projections for 2012. Likewise, when Mitt Romney and the Republicans tell their people that the president has doubled the deficit, they're lying.

No liberal conspiracy here, no alternative math. These are easily verifiable numbers from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office -- the closest thing to a neutral arbiter of budgetary reality available today.

How is this $312 billion number derived?

During every presidential transition of power, whether it's the same party as in 1989 or different parties as in 1993, 2001 and 2009, the outgoing president is mostly responsible for the budget of the transition year since his budget requests to Congress are entered in October of the previous year. In the case of the transition between Presidents Bush and Obama, Bush submitted his $3.1 trillion 2009 budget around a month before President Obama was even elected. (Worth noting: it would be a joke to suggest that President Bush has anything to do with the budget surplus of 2001, his first year in office. The surplus was due to Clinton era policies.)

On January 7, 2009, Doug Elmendorf, the director of the CBO, reported: "CBO projects that the deficit this year will total $1.2 trillion, or 8.3 percent of GDP." The final deficit ended up higher: clocking in at $1.4 trillion.

Put another way, if by some terrifying twist of cruel fate John McCain and Sarah Palin had been elected in 2008, they would have inherited Bush's $1.2 trillion 2009 deficit. There was nothing the incoming president could have done about the previous president's budget requests and previous spending obligations. Perhaps John McCain -- or any Republican successor to Bush -- would have immediately cut spending and offered no stimulus spending. It would have been a disaster of unspeakable proportions, but, whatever President McCain would have done, there are certain spending and tax revenue obligations signed into law by the previous guy throughout his term that would have still impacted McCain's deficit record.

That's kind of what happened to President Obama.

The president's 2010 deficit was lower than in 2009, so he ended up presiding over a reduction in the deficit from Bush's final fiscal year to his own first full year. Even still, President Obama had no choice but to accept the spending obligations that were already place, be they the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Medicare Part-D plan, among others. He also inherited declining tax revenues from the recession (Americans earned much less, therefore tax revenue was down) and the Bush tax cuts, which, in and of themselves, are the primary drivers of longer-term deficits and debt right now. Incidentally, the president could have allowed the Bush tax cuts to expire and, subsequently, cut a gigantic chunk out of the deficit and debt, but he decided to renew them until the impact of the recession had subsided. A debatable move. Nevertheless, this idea of Bush era spending and tax policies impacting the Obama deficit numbers is another point Republicans responding to my column failed to grasp.

Now, admittedly, the president has signed spending bills, and austerity-minded fiscal hawks probably would have preferred he cut more spending than he actually has. Here's where we get into the weeds of dueling economic philosophies. While the president has cut more spending that many Keynesians are comfortable with, he's still, at heart, a Keynesian himself or else he wouldn't have requested and signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the stimulus) as a means of injecting a large (though not large enough) pile of government cash into the rapidly declining economy. He's also called for additional measures like the American Jobs Act, which was blocked by Republicans who are determined to sabotage his presidency by holding back measures that would stimulate more economic growth and job creation.

No matter what has contributed to the federal budget deficit or who's responsible for it, a bare-bones examination of the deficits from 2009, which was mostly Bush's spending, through the 2012 projected deficit, the deficit has gone down.

1) The 2009 deficit was $1.412 trillion.
2) The 2010 deficit was down to $1.293 trillion.
3) The 2011 deficit was up slightly at $1.299 trillion.
4) And the 2012 deficit is projected to be down to $1.1 trillion.

Total deficit reduction for the president's first term: $312 billion.

If by yet another terrifying twist of cruel fate Mitt Romney is elected in November, he will inherit President Obama's spending requests and deficit for 2013. And, once again defying reason and consistency, the Republicans will probably blame President Obama for whatever the 2013 deficit turns out to be, even though they refused to blame Bush for the 2009 deficit.

In other words, Republican smarties will likely try to tell us that President Obama was somehow responsible for five budgets during his four years in office. They'll also probably ignore the continued impact of the Bush era policies on long term deficits and debt, while ballyhooing Mitt Romney's tax plan, which, according to the Tax Policy Center, will add $3 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, and Mitt Romney's inevitable repeal of the deficit-reducing Affordable Care Act. Conversely, the CBO noted that if President Obama's policies are allowed to continue, the deficit could drop to nearly zero by his would-be final budget request for fiscal year 2017 (2017, as we've learned here, will be the first year of the subsequent president's term but President Obama's final fiscal year).

But who am I kidding. They still won't get it.

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