Michael Boskin isn’t much impressed with Obama’s complaint that he inherited a budget deficit. He points out that Obama’s own budget sets us on a course of reckless spending, the cost of which can’t be reasonably balanced by tax hikes (at least not without crippling our economic growth). Boskin explains the depth of the hole Obama — not George W. Bush — is digging for us:
On average, in the first three years of the 10-year budget plan, federal spending rises by 4.4% of GDP. That’s more than during President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Vietnam War buildup and President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup combined. . . Remarkably, President Obama will add more red ink in his first two years than President George W. Bush — berated by conservatives for his failure to control domestic spending and by liberals for the explosion of military spending in Iraq and Afghanistan — did in eight. In his first 15 months, Mr. Obama will raise the debt burden — the ratio of the national debt to GDP — by more than Reagan did in eight years. . . He projects a cumulative deficit of $11.5 trillion by 2020. That brings the publicly held debt (excluding debt held inside the government, e.g., Social Security) to 77% of GDP, and the gross debt to over 100%. Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush each ended their terms at about 40%.
The tax hikes needed to pay for all this would choke off economic growth. (“Such vast debt implies immense future tax increases. Balancing the 2015 budget would require a 43% increase in everyone’s income taxes that year.”) This all is occurring, as Boskin notes, while baby boomers are hitting retirement age, thereby pushing up entitlement costs.
It is understandable then why Obama would rather deflect the discussion to his predecessor’s fiscal shortcomings. But the figures Boskin cites are real and the blame for our worsening situation will rightly be directed to the current White House occupant. He loves, of course, to tell us that choices are “false” or to hover above the political debate as if he were a cable-TV commentator or, yes, a law-school professor. But this is a problem that requires him to do something. And when decisive, potentially unpopular action is required (e.g., Afghanistan war strategy, Iran policy) Obama seems to shrink before our eyes. Is it timidity? Lack of experience or executive ability? We don’t know.
All we can judge Obama by are his decisions and the results he obtains. So far, on the budget (as on so much else), he has come up wanting. There is no policy innovation, no debunking of liberal dogma, and no willingness to embrace the best of his opponents’ ideas. So we can understand why George W. Bush is a favorite crutch.