“History” Isn’t a Dirty Word

Obama’s “spending binge” should be put in context of what he inherited from the previous administration, writes Eric Alterman.

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President George W. Bush meets with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in O'Neill's office on March 7, 2001, to discuss Bush's tax cuts. When the cuts sunset at the end of 2010, the previous administration will have left the government holding the bag for well over $2 trillion in lost revenue. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
President George W. Bush meets with Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill in O'Neill's office on March 7, 2001, to discuss Bush's tax cuts. When the cuts sunset at the end of 2010, the previous administration will have left the government holding the bag for well over $2 trillion in lost revenue. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

Last week, Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei at Politico reported that the White House planned on making deficit reduction a centerpiece of the next State of the Union address. Allen and Vandehei called the decision “practical” saying that “Obama has spent more money on new programs in nine months than Bill Clinton did in eight years, pushing the annual deficit to $1.4 trillion. This leaves little room for big spending initiatives.” This fact is taken completely out of the context of the recession. The title of the article refers to the White House’s “spending binge.” The deficits, tax cuts, and spending of the previous administration are ignored entirely.

It’s not exactly news that most members of MSM are almost purposely amnesiac. There is no greater insult to a reporter than to call his story “history.” And yet once upon a time, it was only yesterday that was old news. Nowadays, with the new neverending cable/talk-radio/blogosphere-driven news cycle, we are all supposed to have forgotten the past fifteen minutes. (There is actually a headline on the Drudge Report as I write this that the Associated Press went to the trouble of looking at the record and seeing whether any of the outrageous claims made in Sarah Palin’s memoir are true. The idea appears to be if it says so in a book, it’s wrong of a journalist to actually check the record. The (surprise, surprise) Fox News story contains no link to the AP story, further making the point that the record is really irrelevant to the story.)

So back to Obama’s “spending binge.” Even if the Politico editors are not interested in what may have happened in the past eight years to cause some of the deficits with which the Obama administration is forced to deal, we are. And here are just a couple of examples we found:

The Bush tax cuts: When the Bush tax cuts sunset at the end of 2010, the previous administration will have left the government holding the bag for well over $2 trillion in lost revenue. The extraordinary debt and deficits accrued during Bush’s tenure have been compounded by the implosion of the financial system. In addition, the estimated eventual costs of the costly, unnecessary, and counterproductive Iraq war are now in the trillions to say nothing of the costs of more than six years of failure in Afghanistan. What have they done for America?

As David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times reporter, recently noted, based on data compiled by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, by the time the Bush tax cuts expire next year, people in the top one percentile of annual household incomes will have received 23.5 percent of all the savings in the cuts. The combined savings of the bottom three income brackets was less than that.

In 2004, Peter Orszag, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote extensively on the costs of the Bush tax cuts as a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He explained that the only way to make the tax cuts permanent and fill the budget gap would be to make enormous cuts in vital government services or to institute new regressive taxes.

Were the cuts paid for, the burden would fall on those in the lower income brackets in both spending cuts to services and increased taxes. Up to this point, the Bush tax cuts have not been paid for in either significant cuts in spending or tax increases—merely with increased debt. David Cay Johnston pointed out that the interest on that debt equals “a month worth of income taxes paid to the government by individuals.”

The Bush war: The opaque appropriations process for funding the Iraq war has generally allowed the Bush administration to shield itself from a great deal of scrutiny by the public on the total cost of the war. Congress approved “bridge funding” and emergency spending requests and so the full costs of the war were kept out of the budget. None of the dollar amounts for the funding requests have been included in the Pentagon’s annual operating budget.

So what does the Iraq war really cost? As early as 2006, Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Blimes estimated that the cost of the war could exceed $2 trillion, including health care for veterans and other expenses. The Congressional Budget Office, in 2008, called it a $1 trillion war, but a trillion strikes us as an overly modest estimation today.

Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University and a former Army colonel, wrote in 2008, “Meanwhile, to fund the war, the Pentagon is burning through somewhere between $2 billion and $3 billion per week. Given that further changes in U.S. policy are unlikely between now and the time that the next administration can take office and get its bearings, the lavish expenditure of American lives and treasure is almost certain to continue indefinitely.”

Afganistan: The legacy of Bush’s runaway military spending and his tax cuts is doing more than just destroying the fiscal health of our government—it is also endangering our security. Look at Afghanistan. According to a recent report in The New York Times, “Some administration estimates suggest it could also cost up to $50 billion over five years to more than double the size of the Afghan army and police force, to a total of 400,000. That includes recruiting, training and equipment.”

David Broder, dean of the national press corps, has actually written that Obama’s “urgent necessity is to make a decision—whether or not it is right.” That is how far we’ve come. Never mind that six years of a failed strategy by the Bush administration, to say nothing of rushing into a catastrophic war, and busting the budget with a giveaway to the rich tax cut, should be considered in the context of the decision. “Just do something” says Broder, regardless of whether it makes sense. Learn nothing from history. Repeat our mistakes over and over, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure to our country and our soldiers. Forget not only Iraq, but Vietnam as well.

It’s hard to believe, I know, but there it is in black and white….

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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