Jonathan Cohn

The Bush Deficit

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Critics of President Obama never tire of blaming him for today's high deficits. But if blame belongs with one president, it belongs with Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. The chart above, which the New York Times created based upon figures from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, illustrates this point very clearly. But it's worth reviewing the history here, because while it's familiar to most of us who follow politics it doesn't seem to get a lot of attention in the political debate.

By the end of the 1990s, the federal budget was in surplus for the first time in decades. Partly that was a product of unusually strong economic growth, during the internet boom, which had swelled tax revenues. But partly that was a product of responsible budgeting, presided over by the most recent two presidents, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. In order to reduce deficits, lawmakers and those two presidents had agreed both to raise taxes and to reduce spending.

In the 2000 campaign, Clinton's would-be successor, Al Gore, campaigned on a promise to, in effect, put those surpluses aside for a rainy day. Bush would have none of it. The government had too much money, he said; the responsible thing was to give it all back to the taxpayers. In office, he did just that, presiding over massive tax cuts that gave, by far, the largest benefits to the very wealthy. Bush promised that the tax cuts would act like a "fiscal straightjacket," preventing government from growing. But then he, and his allies, launched two major wars and enacted a drug benefit for Medicare, all without paying for them. 

Today's fiscal gap is largely a product of those decisions, as the graph above shows. It has very little to do with anything Obama did while in office. In fact, the contrast between the two administrations could not be more striking. Obama's primary undertaking has been comprehensive health care reform. But he insisted that it pay for itself, through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

Of course, tomorrow's deficit problem is a bit different from today's. Looking decades into the future, it's the rising cost of health care that seem likely to wreck federal finances. But health care reform addresses that too, by putting in places the policies and institutions necessary to curb spending on medical care.

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