Are Budget Complaints Legitimate?

For me, it seems that the criticism that most holds water from conservatives about Obama is that he is spending way too much while worrying about the deficit too little. However, here too I think many are misled. Take a look at this chart showing the debt as a percentage of GDP. Note especially the presidents since Jimmy Carter. Under Carter, there was a surplus.

U.S. president Party Term years Start debt/GDP End debt/GDP Increase debt ($T) Increase debt/GDP
(in percentage points)
House Control
(with # if
split during term)
Senate Control
(with # if
split during term)
Roosevelt/Truman D 1945-1949 117.5% 93.1% 0.05 -24.4% 79th D, 80th R 79th D, 80th R
Harry Truman D 1949-1953 93.1% 71.4% 0.01 -21.5% D D
Dwight Eisenhower R 1953-1957 71.4% 60.4% 0.01 -11.0% D 83rd R, 84th D
Dwight Eisenhower R 1957-1961 60.4% 55.2% 0.02 -5.2% D D
Kennedy/Johnson D 1961-1965 55.2% 46.9% 0.03 -8.3% D D
Lyndon Johnson D 1965-1969 46.9% 38.6% 0.05 -8.3% D D
Richard Nixon R 1969-1973 38.6% 35.6% 0.07 -3.0% D D
Nixon/Ford R 1973-1977 35.6% 35.8% 0.19 +0.2% D D
Jimmy Carter D 1977-1981 35.8% 32.5% 0.28 -3.3% D D
Ronald Reagan R 1981-1985 32.5% 43.8% 0.66 +10.8% D R
Ronald Reagan R 1985-1989 43.8% 53.1% 1.04 +9.3% D 99th R, 100th D
George H. W. Bush R 1989-1993 51.1% 66.1% 1.40 +13.0% D D
Bill Clinton D 1993-1997 66.1% 65.4% 1.18 -0.7% 103rd D, 104th R 103rd D, 104th R
Bill Clinton D 1997-2001 65.4% 56.4% 0.45 -9.0% R R
George W. Bush R 2001-2005 56.4% 63.5% 1.73 +7.1% R 107th Split, 108 R
George W. Bush R 2005-2009 63.4% 83.4% 2.63 +20.0% 109th R, 110th D 109th R, 110th D
Barack Obama D 2009-2013 83.4% ? D D

(This information is taken from the White House FY Budget.)

The supposed patron saint of the right, Ronald Reagan, quickly changed that, and debt rose to 10% of GDP. For some reason this isn’t talked about very much. Then we get a Democratic president who completely erases the national deficit and even builds a 9% surplus. So what happened when the next Republican became president? Again, a huge rise in debt, this time up to 20% of GDP.

I do not think, though, that the blame lies completely with the presidency. I tend to believe in zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times,” meaning that a President largely inherits what befalls him. It was Clinton’s luck to have a booming economy in which the debt could be relatively easily erased.

And the debt has increased significantly under President Obama. But again, Obama inherited a very fragile economy and a set of expensive demands from citizens. If the economy picks up again soon, the debt could easily be erased by the next president.

So why, then, such sharp criticism of Obama on this point? If you truly feel that debt is a problem, then criticize uniformly. Don’t pray to Reagan while cursing Obama. They both did the same thing. For all of the lines that divide us, even these two presidents are very similar.

There is another issue which can further prove my point and make you think twice before you charge the government with excessive taxing. In the US tax rates were the lowest they have been since 1950. (According to a USA Today analysis of federal data: “Federal, state and local taxes, including income, property, sales and other taxes, consumed 9.2 percent of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950.”) That is stunning…something not seen in 60 years, even with the Republican presidents!

So when allegations of an unconstitutional, out-of-control government are raised, and when Obama is compared to Hitler, consider the facts. And if you still feel that you have ammunition to use and can think of a more intelligent solution than the ones now being employed, then be my guest.


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