One elementary law of politics that the Obama campaign does not seem to have internalized is this: Don’t play against type.
Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney brazenly asserted that President Barack Obama’s spending binge never happened. “The rate of spending — federal spending — increase is lower under President Obama than all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower, including all of his Republican predecessors.”
This was too much even for the usually worshipful media. The Associated Press issued a full-dress debunking, as did the Washington Post. Though PolitiFact, betraying its own unreliability, rated the administration’s claim “mostly true.” As the AP explained, the facially hilarious claim that Obama was the reincarnation of Calvin Coolidge arose from one columnist’s creativity with numbers. Rex Nutting of Marketwatch employed the usual Washington legerdemain of counting reductions in the rate of increase as cuts. He then assigned all of the spending in fiscal year 2009 to former President George W. Bush’s account, the better to claim that Obama’s increase in the rate of spending after 2009 wasn’t all that huge.
But President Bush signed only three of the 12 appropriations bills for 2009. The Democratically controlled House purposely delayed taking up the other spending bills, knowing they could really hit the accelerator after Obama’s election. President Obama signed the remaining appropriations bills in March 2009.
As the AP noted, the administration/Nutting analysis is an exercise in galling sophistry. “The federal takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” AP explained, “also makes Obama’s record on spending look better than it was. The government spent $96 billion on the Fannie-Freddie takeovers in 2009 but only $40 billion on them in 2010. By the administration’s reckoning, the $56 billion difference was a spending cut by Obama.”
As the Washington Post, AP and most un-blinkered analysts agree, the Obama administration increased federal spending by 9.7 percent in 2009 and 7.8 percent in 2010. The rate of spending growth only began to slow significantly with the election of a Republican House in 2010. As a share of gross domestic product, federal spending under President Obama jumped from 20.8 percent (fiscal year 2008) — a bit higher than the post-World War II average of 20 percent — to 25.4 percent, the highest rate since the war. And unlike the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which passed during the Bush tenure as a one-time deal, much of the spending on Obama’s watch on programs such as Head Start, Medicaid, the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Earned Income Tax Credit are intended to be permanent — the new normal.
It was silly for the administration to attempt this feeble historical revisionism. Voters will not easily be persuaded that Democrats are not the party of big government and increased spending. Obama was better off characterizing his huge expansions of government as essential “investments.” That was open to refutation as well, of course, but at least it wasn’t a lie.
There’s a lesson here for Mitt Romney, too. If voters are quite certain that Democrats are the party of big government and big spending, they are also inclined to think that Republicans are the party of the rich. Sixty percent of those responding to a Pew Research Center poll agreed that Republican policies “favor the rich.” A Gallup survey in 2011 found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are “worried that the Republican plan for reducing the budget deficit” will “protect the rich at the expense of everyone else.”
It isn’t so much Romney’s personal wealth that presents a problem. Americans have not been notable for punishing wealthy aspirants to high office. It’s even possible that Romney’s success may be interpreted positively in a time of economic anxiety, if people conclude that a little “turnaround” action is just what our ailing economy needs.
But the lingering doubts about Republican motives may dog Romney, which is why it is so crucial for him to frame the coming debate in a larger context than simply “vote for the business guy who knows how an economy works.” The risk is that too many voters may conclude that it will “work” only for those at the top.
Romney has said privately and publicly that he believes 2012 to be a “hinge” election — a crucial turning point that will decide whether we follow Europe into economic sclerosis and declining standards of living or whether we revitalize our once vibrant and thriving private sector by cutting government down to size. He should say it more often and more prominently. Here it is on a bumper sticker: If you want a paycheck, vote Romney. If you want an unemployment check, vote Obama.