economic crisis

A Post Deficit Story Ignores the Obvious

August 26, 2009

There’s a word missing from the Washington Post‘s lead story this morning on the budget deficit: “Bush.”

Its absence goes a long way toward explaining what’s wrong with the piece, which gets off on the wrong foot immediately with a headline, “Deficit Projected To Soar With New Programs,” that Dean Baker points out is not really accurate. The story gives readers little context about why the deficit is as high as it is, and why it’s increasing, instead leading them to believe its mostly Obama’s fault (it’s not).

Here’s its lede:

The nation would be forced to borrow more than $9 trillion to support President Obama’s initiatives and other federal programs over the next decade, the White House said Tuesday, a sharp increase in projected deficits that provided fresh ammunition to critics of the president’s sweeping proposal to expand health coverage to the uninsured.

That’s misleading. To see why take a look at the 2009 deficit. On January 20, when Obama took office, the CBO projected this year’s debt to be $1.2 trillion (Obama, who had an obvious incentive to inflate it, said $1.3 trillion). Now the estimate for this year is $1.6 trillion, up 33 percent since January.

But wait a minute: Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett (who to be fair is a Bush hater) told The Wall Street Journal’s David Wessel that, by his calculations, $226 billion of that is due to Obama policies. So Obama is responsible for just 14 percent of the $1.6 trillion 2009 deficit, and much of that is due to stimulus spending he enacted to try to lift the devastated economy he inherited.

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And that’s not to mention the remaining part of the decade. The Post should have had something like this good context from the Journal’s A1 story:

The spending surge this year doesn’t stem from a permanent expansion of government. Of the $700 billion increase in spending that the CBO forecasts for fiscal 2009, ending Sept. 30, $424 billion comes from the Troubled Asset Relief Program and the rescue of mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, bailouts approved under Mr. Bush. About $115 billion stems from Mr. Obama’s stimulus plan. The rest comes from increases in spending on Medicaid, unemployment and other programs that rise automatically in an economic downturn.

Beyond 2013, deficits will remain stubbornly high in large part because of spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. That isn’t tied to the recession, the CBO said; it will simply rise as baby boomers age.

But the closest the Post comes to contextualizing this news is in the eleventh paragraph when it says the 2009 deficit “is almost entirely the result of the severe downturn”—and that’s not good enough.

So I have a reading assignment for anybody writing or reading about the budget: David Leonhardt’s June analysis of how much of Obama’s first-term deficits are due to, you know, Obama policies. His calculation then: 10 percent (another 20 percent comes from continuing Bush’s wars and his tax cuts for people earning less than $250,000 a year).

And make sure you read the revealing chart.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.