A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama and the Deficit


During a speech on Tuesday, President Obama promised to reduce the budget deficit:

Obama: Now, this budget does not attempt to solve every problem or address every issue because of the massive deficit we inherited and the enormous costs of this financial crisis. We have made some tough choices that will cut our deficit in half by the end of my first term and reduce it by $2 trillion over the next decade.

To start, we want to clarify that Obama is talking about the budget deficit (the amount of money the government spends in a given year minus what it takes in), not the national debt (the cumulative amount of money the government owes). Though it may sound like it, Obama isn’t saying that the government will owe less money than it does now by the end of his term, or in 10 years. In fact, most presidents leave office with a larger debt than they inherited. Rather, Obama is proposing to slow the rate at which the debt grows.

And he is right as far as he goes. But some of those figures could use some context. According to the Office of Management and Budget analysis of Obama’s submitted budget, the deficit is projected to decrease by half from about $1.75 trillion in 2009 to $581 billion in 2012. However, it is also projected to bounce back up a bit to about $712 billion in 2019.

The OMB does say that the Obama budget would yield a total $2 trillion worth of reductions over a 10-year period. But this is measured against the theoretical continuation of the last Bush budget. And some conservative critics, like the Heritage Foundation, consider this "budget trickery," because it assumes that 2008 spending in Iraq (which was about $154 billion) would continue for 10 years at that same level. (On the other hand, Bush performed his own magic to make the budget seem smaller than it really should have been by continually leaving the war in Iraq out of it, funding it instead through "emergency appropriations.")

Regardless, the White House may need to retire these talking points soon, as the Congressional Budget Office plans to release new (and higher) deficit projections.

Correction, March 20: We originally said Obama is proposing to slow the rate of spending, but what we meant to say is that he’s promising to slow the rate at which the debt grows. We have modified the item accordingly.