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The Truth About the President and the Deficit

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Arguably the biggest lie coming from the Republicans and the Romney campaign is that President Obama is a tax and spend liberal who's directly and personally responsible for record deficits and a crushing national debt.

Not only is Mitt Romney telling his supporters that President Obama continues to spend out of control, but additionally that the president is responsible for doubling the budget deficit since he took office. This is not a new attack. Republicans who blindly greenlit trillions in Bush-era spending have been engaged in this nonsense practically since the minute the president was inaugurated.

I like to do this from time to time, so consider this a one-stop source for debunking what the Republicans are claiming about the Obama administration's fiscal record. Before I do, however, I'd like to note that Republicans often confuse the national debt with the federal budget deficit, not unlike the way they scramble the stimulus and the bailouts. (The "stimulus," passed by President Obama, is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the "bailout," passed by President Bush, is also known as TARP.) They're not interchangeable terms.

For example, Karl Rove's new and highly deceptive anti-Obama commercial somehow conflates the national debt and unemployment, calling it "job-killing debt," even though job-creation and the national debt are about as interdependent as Rove and The Truth. We can assume that Rove simply doesn't know what the debt actually is, or that he's deliberately lying to voters.

To be clear: the federal budget deficit is the annual difference between what the government spends and what it collects in revenue. It's often similar, higher or lower, than the previous fiscal year's deficit. The debt is the total amount of money the United States owes to creditors, and this much larger figure accrues from year to year. A lot of people don't know the difference, and I've even heard very serious cable news people mix them up, too.

So let's start from the beginning -- prior to 2009 when the president was inaugurated. While it's true that, in a general sense, the deficit and debt are higher than ever before, it has less to do with President Obama, and more to do with the previous administration's careless spending, ridiculously large tax cuts for the super-rich coupled with the globally massive economic depression from which we're still extricating ourselves.

The following chart, using Congressional Budget Office numbers, precisely illustrates the sources of the federal budget deficit.

One layer is directly the result of Obama administration policies. The rest aren't. And the "economic downturn" began prior to the president's inauguration, and, as time goes on, we're learning that the recession was far worse than we were led to believe at the time, making an escape and recovery even longer and more challenging than anticipated.

In terms of the debt, the strata are remarkably similar, even though the numbers are larger:

As you can see, much of the "record" deficit and debt had nothing to do with the Obama administration. But Republicans will insist that the deficit is out of control and that happened on Obama's watch beginning in 2009, and has been getting worse every year since then.

This is a super-colossal lie.

Here's Bob Beauprez, a former Republican congressman and current blogger for the popular conservative website lying to his readers:

The 2011 budget deficit for the federal government is $1.299 trillion according to numbers just released by the U.S. Treasury. That is the second highest deficit in history. [...]

Obama will likely make it four in a row one year from now as his own budget shop is estimating a $1.1 trillion deficit for 2012.

The 2009 deficit still holds the record at $1.412 trillion. In 2010 the deficit reached $1.293. In just three years, more than $4 trillion of red ink has been added to the debt. The government's fiscal year ends September 30.

Did you spot the lie? It's 2009. Even though the president entered office in 2009, the fiscal year 2009 spending for October 2008 to September 2009 was requested by President Bush and worsened by his policies (see previous deficit chart). The Congressional Budget Office noted that President Obama inherited $1.2 trillion of the total $1.4 trillion deficit for 2009.

And even though it's staring him in the face, Beauprez failed to note that the president has reduced the deficit nearly every year. Again, by Beauprez's own numbers, the president has cut the deficit every year except for one. Between 2009 and 2012, the president will have reduced the deficit by $312 billion. Put another way, the president has cut the deficit by nearly 25 percent -- so far.

Much to my personal Keynesian chagrin, President Obama cut spending, cut the deficit and cut taxes. (I'd rather he spend more in the short term to stimulate more growth and then cut the deficit when things have stabilized, but yeah.) In chart form:

A couple of months ago in Arizona, Mitt Romney attacked the president on this topic with a whopper lie: "He said he'd cut the deficit in half. He's doubled it. He's doubled it."

Mitt Romney actually said that. Well, no, the president didn't cut the deficit in half. And he hasn't doubled it. Obviously. Romney lied again.

Actually, the president is on course to practically erasing the entire budget deficit by 2017, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The 2017 budget deficit, which will reflect President Obama's final spending requests (a similar dynamic to Bush's last deficit of 2009), could end up dropping close to zero, as a percentage of GDP.

Conversely, the Tax Policy Center reported that the Romney tax plan would explode the deficit by nearly $3 trillion over ten years. And that doesn't even take into consideration the reversal of the president's deficit cutting policies like the Affordable Care Act, or another recession, or whatever Romney decides to do in Iran.

Feel free to steal the above charts and pass them around. The Republicans have made it part of their strategy to flagrantly lie to their followers knowing that any fact-checking to debunk the lies will be met with a creepy "liberal bias" response. They're counting on it -- especially in the Romney campaign. The rest of us are tasked with being the reality-based grownups in the room.

UPDATE: I neglected to add this chart to the mix, via numbers from Market Watch. It turns out that annualized spending growth is the slowest of any president in the last 30 years.

Part of the reason for the slow growth is that Obama -- unlike his Republican and Democratic predecessors -- signed a law in February 2010 necessitating that new spending laws are paid for. In addition, Obama last year signed into law over $2 trillion in debt-reduction over the next decade.


No wonder the Republicans have to lie. The truth is too damaging to their prospects.

Crossposted at The Daily Banter.
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