Daniel J. Mitchell

Two years ago, there was a flurry of excitement because some guy named Rex Nutting crunched annual budget numbers and concluded that Barack Obama was the most fiscally conservative President since at least 1980.

I looked at the data and found a few mistakes, such as a failure to adjust the numbers for inflation, but Nutting’s overall premise was reasonably accurate.

As you can see from the tables I prepared back in 2012, Obama was the third most frugal President based on the growth of total inflation-adjusted spending.

And he was in first place if you looked at primary spending, which is total spending after removing net interest payments (a reasonable step since Presidents can’t really be blamed for interest payments on the debt accrued by their predecessors).

So does this mean Obama is a closet conservative, asmy old – but misguided – buddy Bruce Bartlett asserted?

Not exactly. A few days after that post, I did some more calculations and explained that Obama was the undeserved beneficiary of the quirky way that bailouts and related items are measured in the budget.

It turns out that Obama supposed frugality is largely the result of how TARP is measured in the federal budget. To put it simply, TARP pushed spending up in Bush’s final fiscal year (FY2009, which began October 1, 2008) and then repayments from the banks (which count as “negative spending”) artificially reduced spending in subsequent years.

So I removed TARP, deposit insurance, and other bailout-related items, on the assumption that such one-time costs distort the real record of various Administrations.


Daniel J. Mitchell

Daniel J. Mitchell is a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy at the Cato Institute.
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