On the campaign trail, President Obama has touted recent data that dispels the notion that he has embarked on a spending binge — and his Republican opponents, citing various fact-checks, are aggressively pushing back.
Part of the pushback, it turns out, inadvertently proves Obama’s larger point.
“Federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any president in almost 60 years,” Obama said last Thursday at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa. Citing a MarketWatch study, White House spokesman Jay Carney called the notion of an Obama spending spree “BS.”
Fact-checkers pounced — including The Associated Press, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal editorial board — issuing rebuttals that conservatives and Republicans have cited as evidence that Obama’s claims are wrong.
“President Obama continues to repeat false and discredited talking points about his prolific spending record to distract from the record debt that he is passing on to future generations,” Ryan Williams, a spokesman for Mitt Romney, told TPM. “As a president who broke his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term, Barack Obama has no credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility.”
Much of the pushback focuses on the growth of federal spending as a share of the economy under Obama. Under this benchmark, spending appears to have skyrocketed. But the metric is flawed because revenues have fallen during Obama’s tenure due to a huge economic contraction that began before he took office. That standard, in effect, blames him for the downturn.
The fact-checks did find some questionable premises from MarketWatch. For one, it effectively treated the paybacks from President Bush’s one-time bailouts of the financial sector, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as spending cuts under Obama. The outlets also argued that baseline changes in the president’s budget tweak the spending figures in friendly ways.
Tallying that up, the Wall Street Journal editorial board concluded: “To anyone who really knows the numbers, Mr. Obama’s spending has increased by closer to 5% a year,” as opposed to the 1.4 percent in the MarketWatch numbers. The Republican National Committee touted the Journal’s figure in its rebuttal of Obama’s point.
The problem with that is 5 percent is still low by historical standards. That’s especially true of modern Republican presidents: President George W. Bush’s two terms saw spending increases of 7.3 and 8.1 percent, respectively; President George H.W. Bush’s figure was 5.4 percent and President Ronald Reagan’s were 8.7 and 4.9 percent. (Spending increases under President Bill Clinton were under 4 percent.)
RNC spokesman Sean Spicer told TPM, “The overarching point is that almost every outlet disagrees with Carney’s spin on spending.”
Ultimately, Obama may have exaggerated his ostensible frugality, but even according to the figures Republicans cite, his spending is still low by the standards of modern presidents. The firestorm of criticism Obama receives on the debt often papers over that fact.
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.