Obama Calling for End to the Imaginary “Era of Austerity”

Over the last several years there has been a troubling increase in the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. But over the same timespan Washington has suffered from an acute case of deficit attention disorder, which is to say that policymakers can’t seem to stay focused on the important task of reducing our unsustainable deficits.

Republicans have done their best to reduce spending by using every point of leverage they have—the debt limit, the budget, etc—but there is only so much that can be done when you only control one chamber of Congress. Democrats on the other hand have been dead-set on thwarting any attempts to right-size government and put the nation on a manageable fiscal trajectory.

The Washington Post reports on President Obama’s latest effort to increase spending:

President Obama’s forthcoming budget request will seek tens of billions of dollars in fresh spending for domestic priorities while abandoning a compromise proposal to tame the national debt in part by trimming Social Security benefits.

With the 2015 budget request, Obama will call for an end to the era of austerity that has dogged much of his presidency and to his efforts to find common ground with Republicans. Instead, the president will focus on pumping new cash into job training, early-childhood education and other programs aimed at bolstering the middle class, providing Democrats with a policy blueprint heading into the midterm elections.

As part of that strategy, Obama will jettison the framework he unveiled last year for a so-called grand bargain that would have raised taxes on the rich and reined in skyrocketing retirement spending. A centerpiece of that framework was a proposal — demanded by GOP leaders — to use a less-generous measure of inflation to calculate Social Security benefits.

The Democrats’ strategy has long been to paint the past several years as an “Era of Austerity” that should, at some point, come to an end. But the reality has been exactly the opposite. To understand why one needs to merely glance at the White House’s historical budget tables, which breaks down the receipts, outlays and deficits of the federal government. Those figures show that spending fully doubled in the decade spanning 2001 through 2011, shooting up from $1.8 trillion to $3.6 trillion.

Now, liberals like to argue that spending leveled off between 2009 and 2012, but they never seem to mention that it stayed at stimulus-era levels. In other words, all of those though-to-be “one time” costs to help us escape the recession never went away—they simply got baked into a new, higher baseline. And lest you think that spending has forever plateaued, current estimates have spending rising by nearly another trillion in the next six years.

It’s worthwhile to keep in mind that at one time President Obama also viewed Washington’s free-spending ways a portent of future problems.

“We’ll have to set priorities as never before, and stick to them,” Obama said in his 2008 stump speech. “It also means promoting a new ethic of responsibility. Part of the reason this crisis occurred is that everyone was living beyond their means—from Wall Street to Washington to even some on Main Street. CEOs got greedy. Politicians spent money the didn’t have.”

Sticking to our priorities? That’s so 2008. A new ethic of responsibility? How passé. Living beyond our means? What a grand idea. Spending money they didn’t have? That’s a problem for the accountants.

Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at all that President Obama’s 2015 budget will dramatically increase spending and deficits. In fact, that’s pretty much part for the course over his last few proposed budgets (none of which has gone anywhere, or been supported by nearly any Democrats). David Harsanyi writes for the Federalist:

Obama has never even been in a serious discussion about austerity. In 2012, Obama’s budget would have created $6.4 trillion in new deficits in a decade, according to the CBO. Obama’s 2013 budget would have added $3.5 trillion to annual deficits through 2022, and his 2014 budget proposal would have added $5.2 trillion in deficits over 10 years. Maybe you believe these deficits don’t matter, or maybe you’re annoyed that deficit scolds are clogging up the debate, but austerity hasn’t dominated American politics, and it certainly hasn’t been a part of any policy discussion by this administration.

And outside of a clever branding effort on the part of the White House, I wouldn’t expect much of a serious austerity discussion this year either.