A common liberal answer to conservative complaints about the size of government and the federal debt is that George W. Bush also grew government and ran deficits. Rather than taking these claims at face value, conservatives should present liberals with counterarguments that delve deeper into the issues at hand.
First, examine the details of the growth of government under George W. Bush. According to the Office of Personnel Management, in 2000 there were 4,129,000 federal workers. By 2008, there were 4,206,000 federal workers, a total increase of 77,000 employees. Executive branch employees increased by 53,000 and military personnel increased by 24,000.
Much of this increase in the federal workforce is explained by the fact that the nation went to war on George W. Bush’s watch. Bipartisan votes in congress authorized the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq after the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001. The increase in military personnel was needed to fight these wars.
The jump in executive branch employees is also a result of the wars against terrorists. The increase is almost totally accounted for by the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. According to CNN, the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of DHS, employs approximately 60,000 federal workers. The TSA employs screeners, air marshals, inspectors, explosives detection teams, and, of course, bureaucrats.
For Obama’s part, federal employment also increased from 2008 through 2011, the last year for which statistics were available. In 2011, there were 4,403,000 federal workers, an increase of 197,000 from 2008. The 2011 total was slightly lower than 2010, due to the inclusion of temporary census workers in 2010. Under Obama, executive branch employees increased by 64,000 and uniformed military personnel increased by 133,000.
With respect to spending, President Bush inherited a surplus according to historical data from the White House Office of Management and Budget. There was a federal surplus of $128 billion in 2001. The recession and the new war combined to create a $158 billion deficit in 2002 as revenues fell and spending increased.
During the Bush Administration, total outlays increased every year from $1.8 trillion in 2001 to $2.9 trillion in 2008. The average deficit during the Bush years was $250 billion. As a percentage of GDP, the average deficit was two percent. President Bush’s largest deficit was $458 billion in 2008 when the financial crisis led to the creation of the Troubled Asset Relief Program and several corporate bailouts.
During President Obama’s first term, federal outlays increased from $3.5 trillion in 2009 to $3.6 trillion in 2011. The estimated total outlays for 2012 are estimated to be $3.8 trillion. In Obama’s first year, the deficit increased by almost a trillion dollars from 2008. Obama has not had a single year in which the deficit was less than a trillion dollars. Obama’s average deficit was $1.3 trillion during his first three years. This translates into an average deficit that is 9.2 percent of GDP.
Under President Obama, spending dramatically increased at the same time that tax revenues dropped sharply due to the Great Recession. By 2012, revenues were almost recovered to pre-2008 levels, but spending had risen even faster. Even three years in to the recovery, deficit levels remain above eight percent of GDP.
Some liberals might prefer to use 2009 numbers rather than 2008, but that would let Obama escape responsibility for the stimulus spending that he initiated. In reality, President Obama’s “emergency” stimulus spending never went away and the increased spending levels have now become permanent.
It is true that Bush left office in 2009, but he served less than a month. President Bush submitted the proposed budget for the 2009 fiscal year to Congress, but it was President Obama who signed it into law. In either case, the average deficit under Obama is more than four times greater than that of President Bush.
Both presidents increased the national debt according to statistical data from the U.S. Treasury. On January 20, 2001 when President Bush took office, the total national debt stood at $5.7 trillion. Eight years later on January 20, 2009 the debt had risen to $10.6 trillion.
During President Obama’s first term the debt increased to $16.4 trillion on January 20, 2013. This means that under Obama, the debt had increased by $5.8 trillion in four years as opposed to President Bush’s increase of $4.9 trillion over eight years.
In the final analysis, both presidents grew government and spent and borrowed far too much. President Obama’s spending and borrowing is in a league by itself, however. Obama is the only president in U.S. history to preside over trillion dollar deficits and one has occurred each year of his presidency.
The only other period in American history in which spending levels matched those under Obama was when the country mobilized to fight the Axis during World War II. In the 1940s, government spending decreased at the end of the war. So far President Obama has shown no signs of ever slowing his spending.