How To Understand The Debate Over Obama’s Non-Existent Spending Spree

Our guest blogger is Michael Linden, Director of Tax and Budget Policy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

Over the past two weeks, a couple of charts — one from yours truly and one from Rex Nutting at MarketWatch — have really riled up conservatives and confused a fair number of DC establishment media types. For the past three years, it has been an article of faith among those folks that President Obama went on some kind of spending binge. And a casual glance at yearly spending figures does appear to support that charge. But what my chart and Rex’s chart show is that, once you account for the fact that most of the increase in spending from fiscal year 2008 to 2009 happened before President Obama even took office, then the “binge” utterly vanishes.

And this is the key point. The only way to show that spending has gone up dramatically under President Obama is to pretend like he had complete control over what was spent in fiscal year 2009. And that notion is utterly false.

First of all, recall that President Obama took office nearly four months into fiscal year 2009. That simple fact, all by itself, is enough to discount any “analysis” that merely compares fiscal year 2008 spending to fiscal year 2009, and tries to attribute the entire difference to President Obama.

But it actually goes beyond that. By the time President Obama took office, nearly all the dramatic increase in spending had already been baked into the cake. How do we know that? Well, in January 2009, before President Obama had even taken office, the Congressional Budget Office projected that federal spending would exceed $3.5 trillion for fiscal year 2009, half a trillion more than the government spent in 2008. Again, that was BEFORE President Obama event took office. It’s reasonable to use that number as our best guess at what spending would have been in FY2009 under ANY president. That’s what my chart from last week did.

Of course, the CBO’s projections aren’t perfect. They change as the economy changes and as laws change. Fortunately, CBO also tells us in subsequent reports how and why its previous estimates have changed. We can use that to understand how much of the total federal spending in fiscal year 2009 was attributable to legislative changes that occurred AFTER President Obama took office.

The answer is that out of a total of $3.5 trillion actually spent in FY09, only $165 billion, less than 5 percent, was the result of policy changes signed into law by President Obama.

In other words, probably the best baseline against which to judge spending under Obama is $3.5 trillion (the amount actually spent in 2009) minus $165 billion (the added amount Obama himself actually approved): $3.35 trillion. This year, the CBO expects that the federal government will spend $3.6 trillion. After accounting for inflation, that’s a growth rate of just 1.7 percent. By comparison, and using the exact same methodology, spending in President Bush’s first term was up nearly 15 percent.

Here’s the bottom line: there was a large increase in government spending in fiscal year 2009, but most of that that surge wasn’t President Obama’s doing. It would have happened no matter who was President. And since then, for better or for worse, spending growth under President Obama has been incredibly restrained. This doesn’t jibe with the conventional wisdom and it requires a touch more effort to understand than simply pretending President Obama inherited a blank fiscal slate. But it’s the truth.