A dominant theme of the national political discourse has been the crushing spending spree the U.S. has ostensibly embarked on during the Obama presidency. That argument, ignited by Republicans and picked up by many elite opinion makers, has infused the national dialogue and shaped the public debate in nearly every major budget battle of the last thee years.
But the numbers tell a different story.
The fact that the national debt has risen from $10.6 trillion to $15.6 trillion under Obama’s watch makes for easy partisan attacks. But the vast bulk of the increase was caused by a combination of revenue losses due to the 2008-09 economic downturn as well as Bush-era tax cuts and automatic increases in safety-net spending that were already written into law.
Obama’s policies, including the much-criticized stimulus package, have caused the slowest increase in federal spending of any president in almost 60 years, according to data compiled by the financial news service MarketWatch.
The chart shows that Presidents Reagan, both Bushes, and to a lesser extent Clinton, grew federal spending at a far quicker pace than Obama. 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.
Republicans argue that safety-net spending has crossed a critical threshold in recent years and Obama has been unwilling to address it. The two sides have jousted over who is to blame but the President has put hundreds of billions in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security on the table in deals that have been derailed, thanks in no small part to the GOP’s resistance to raising new tax revenues to help bridge the budget shortfall.
But that hasn’t quelled the attacks. Last week, Obama’s likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney accused Obama of lighting a “prairie fire” of spending and said he “added almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined.”
Chart by TPM’s Clayton Ashley
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.