- - Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Republicans targeting Obamacare should not forget President Obama’s other legacy — excessive spending. Actually, Obamacare is just the tip of this administration’s big-government iceberg. As bad as Obamacare is, the former president’s spending, deficits and debt legacy is even bigger and more dangerous.

Mr. Obama took office with the recession’s effect already manifesting itself in the federal budget. Federal revenues had dipped almost 2 percent in fiscal 2008 and spending had jumped almost 10 percent. As a result, the federal deficit almost tripled, going from 1.1 percent to 3.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) from 2007 to 2008.

Establishing the Obama fiscal baseline is crucial to understanding what has transpired over the past eight years. It is also important to understand that the recession’s early impact on the federal budget actually serves to obscure Mr. Obama’s real spending spike.

From fiscal 2008 to 2009, federal spending jumped 17.9 percent, reaching $3.5 trillion and almost a quarter of the nation’s GDP at 24.4 percent. Federal spending would remain at the $3.5 trillion level throughout Mr. Obama’s tenure — though it edged slightly below 2009’s absolute level three times — before hitting $3.7 trillion in 2015 and $3.9 trillion last year.

Mr. Obama’s sustained spending spike helped keep deficits well above 2008’s 3.1 percent of GDP. Peaking at 9.8 percent in 2009, it would not fall below 2008’s level until coming in just under at 2.8 percent in 2014.



Nowhere has the Obama spending effect registered more clearly than in the federal debt. Debt held by the public stood at $5.8 trillion in 2008. At the end of 2016, it had increased more than 140 percent to $14.1 trillion. In the same period, it almost doubled as a percentage of GDP, going from 39.3 percent to 76.7 percent.

In its three major fiscal categories, the budget is worse off at Mr. Obama’s departure from office. In 2008, federal spending was 20.2 percent of GDP; in 2016, 20.9 percent. In 2008, federal revenues were 17.1 percent of GDP; in 2016, 17.8 percent. In 2008, the federal deficit was 3.1 percent; in 2016 despite higher revenue relative to a larger economy, it was 3.2 percent.

And as bad as these results are, the Obama fiscal trajectory is even worse. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Obama baseline will have spending at 23.1 percent, revenues at 18.5 percent, the deficit at 4.6 percent, and debt at 85.5 percent of GDP in a decade. By 2046, spending will be 28.2 percent, revenues at 19.4 percent, the deficit at 8.8 percent, and federal debt at 141 percent of GDP.

Noteworthy in each of these snapshots of the Obama baseline, revenues have increased — not just absolutely, but relative to the economy. Yet, in each case spending is increasing even more. For anyone doubting where the federal fiscal problem lies, look no further than the ledger’s outlay side.

This did not happen by accident, or even recession. When Mr. Obama had overwhelming congressional support and could have done anything with the budget, he chose to increase spending — most notably with Obamacare.

Republicans are justified in opposing it and making it their first target. They have many reasons for doing so. One of those reasons should be that it is a microcosm of the federal budget’s macro problems.

Obamacare is an entitlement program run amuck. Poorly designed and unable to sustain itself — despite the original promises — it survives on federal subsidies, which drive increasing federal deficits.

What Republicans dislike in Obamacare exists on a far larger scale throughout the Obama baseline — particularly federal entitlements. If you oppose the tip of the iceberg, you should oppose the rest of the iceberg beneath it.

If you want to reduce the size of government, what government spends is the size of government. Certainly, the reach of government’s intrusion extends beyond just what it spends — regulations and taxes add to it. However, at its most elemental, government’s size is what it spends.

The resources government spends fuel its other endeavors. If you reduce these, you are well positioned to reduce the rest. If these resources are left in place, regardless of your success in trimming the other areas of government, victory is at best only temporary.

If you want to help grow the economy, what government spends is the major indicator of how much is being diverted from the economy’s most productive area — the private sector. Last year, that amounted to more than a fifth (20.9 percent) of everything America produces. In 10 years, it will be almost a quarter (23.1 percent) and by 2046, it will be closing in on three of every 10 dollars in production (28.2 percent).

Going after Obamacare first makes good sense beyond just fixing that program’s many problems. It remains widely unpopular. Support for taking this on, and the lessons learned in doing so, could help in making the case for taking on the bigger challenges later. And these later challenges are as undeniable as they are large — and have been known for decades.

Certainly, targeting Obamacare is a good place to start in undoing the Obama legacy. However, it should not be where Republicans stop.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget, and as a congressional staff member.

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