Obama’s Loose Change

CBO says the deficit will reach $1.2 trillion this year. President-elect Obama says the red ink will continue to flow at this rate or faster “for years to come” unless policymakers “make a change in the way Washington does business.”

Obama is right, of course. And his words echo the message he used so successfully throughout the campaign. Change, he promised, that you can believe in. The problem is that the stimulus bill Obama is preparing mimics exactly the sort of cynical business Washington has been doing for decades.

It has become a drearily familiar formula: Democrats want to increase spending. Republicans want to cut taxes. So they compromise–by doing both. And arithmetic being what it is, the deficit explodes.

We may, in fact, be about to create the mirror image of what happened during the Bush Administration. In 2001, an ambitious new president rolled into Washington faced with a slowing economy, and armed with an aggressive new economic agenda and a promise to change the tone in the Capital. George Bush, of course, wanted to cut taxes. The then out-of-power Democrats wanted to spend more.

What happened? Democrats bowed to big tax cuts, and, according to CBO, revenues as a share of GDP fell from 20.9 percent in 2000 to 16.3 percent by the end of Bush’s first term. Despite his tough talk about bloated government, the President abandoned efforts to control spending. As a result, outlays ballooned from 18.4 percent of GDP to 20 percent. All the Inside the Beltway players came away winners, and the modest surplus Bush inherited turned into a deficit of 5 percent of GDP.

Oh, and by the way, only about half of that new spending was for the military. The rest went to domestic discretionary programs and entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Now the roles are reversed—the Democrats are in charge and the GOP is in the minority. And, to be sure, the economy is worse. But the story line is looking eerily familiar.

Obama suggests it will be different this time. He says that budget reform will fix all this—later. Today he appointed a White House aide to seek out waste and abuse. Sadly, we’ve heard all that before too. I await change that I can believe in.