During a recent press conference, President Obama blamed George W. Bush for the nation's fiscal condition. "When I walked in," he declared, "wrapped in a nice bow was a $1.3 trillion deficit sitting right there on my doorstep." Earlier this year he asserted that "we came in with $8 trillion worth of debt over the next decade."
Neither statement is correct, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). True enough, the outgoing Bush administration bequeathed big deficits to Mr. Obama. The expected 2009 deficit was $1.19 trillion, not $1.3 trillion, however—and the actual deficit for 2009 came in at $1.41 trillion, meaning that the new president added some $220 billion to the total.
Far more significant, however, was the president's misstatement that Mr. Bush and the Republicans left the country with $8 trillion of debt over the next 10 years. The CBO's projected 10-year deficit when Mr. Obama took office was actually $4.09 trillion. Now, after 20 months of his presidency, the expected deficit has almost doubled, to $7.68 trillion.
A strong case can be made that the people most responsible for the gigantic deficits we face today are neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama. The real culprits are Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Congress controls the purse strings. When Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid rose to their present jobs in January 2007, the deficit was $161 billion. It had been on a downward trajectory from $413 billion in 2004. Three years later, the Pelosi-Reid Congress had added $1.2 trillion to the deficit.
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For the sake of comparison, let's look at the Pelosi-Reid fiscal record over 10 years. In January 2007, the CBO projected a $379 billion surplus over the next decade. Now, after four years under Mrs. Pelosi and Mr. Reid, and two years of Mr. Obama in the White House, the 2007-2016 projection is a deficit of $7.16 trillion.
Presidents typically get both too much credit and too much blame for the state of the economy. Try as they might, the folks in Washington don't "manage" the economy; they mostly react to it, play politics with it, and make things worse. We need to stop talking about separation of church and state and start talking about separation of economy and state.
That said, Bush certainly did his part to expand government and add to the debt, with programs like No Child Left Behind and prescription Medicare. He deserves our scorn for that. But let's remember that Democrats were on board with these government expansions in a huge way.
Let's also remember that despite these spending increases, and despite two wars and the 9/11 attacks on the heart of our financial system, unemployment was low and the economy was growing steadily for most of Bush's presidency. Then came the housing crash and the financial crisis, for which there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the aisle.
Bush didn't help with TARP, a plan crafted with Obama's cooperation and passed with wide bipartisan support. Then Obama swept in and, in just a few months, made George "Compassionate-big-government" Bush look like a relative spinster. For Barack "What-comes-after-a-trillion?" Obama to continue to complain, after nearly two years in office, that it's all Bush's fault is audacious indeed.