What Karl Rove got wrong on the U.S. deficit
By David Axelrod
Friday, January 15, 2010; A23
For its Topic A feature last Sunday, The Post invited a panel of political operatives to offer their advice to the Democratic Party on strategy for 2010 [Sunday Opinion, Jan. 10]. Improbably, one of the operatives asked was Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's longtime chief strategist.
Rove has some impressive campaign victories to his credit. But given the shape in which the last administration left this country, I'm not sure I would solicit his advice. And given the backhanded advice he offered, I'm not sure he was all that eager to help.
Of all the claims Rove made, one in particular caught my eye for its sheer audacity and shamelessness -- that congressional Democrats "will run up more debt by October than Bush did in eight years."
So, let's review a little history:
The day the Bush administration took over from President Bill Clinton in 2001, America enjoyed a $236 billion budget surplus -- with a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion. When the Bush administration left office, it handed President Obama a $1.3 trillion deficit -- and projected shortfalls of $8 trillion for the next decade. During eight years in office, the Bush administration passed two major tax cuts skewed to the wealthiest Americans, enacted a costly Medicare prescription-drug benefit and waged two wars, without paying for any of it.
To put the breathtaking scope of this irresponsibility in perspective, the Bush administration's swing from surpluses to deficits added more debt in its eight years than all the previous administrations in the history of our republic combined. And its spending spree is the unwelcome gift that keeps on giving: Going forward, these unpaid-for policies will continue to add trillions to our deficit.
This fiscal irresponsibility -- and a laissez-faire attitude toward the excesses of the financial industry -- helped create the conditions for the deepest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression. Economists across the political spectrum agreed that to deal with this crisis and avoid a second Great Depression, the government had to make significant investments to keep our economy going and shore up our financial system.
That is why President Obama and Congress crafted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Despite Rove's assertion, it is widely accepted that the difficult but necessary steps Obama took have helped save our economy from an even deeper disaster. And while Rove conveniently ignores that it was President Bush -- not Obama -- who signed into law the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout for banks, the Obama administration's rigorous stewardship added transparency and accountability that have cut the expected cost of that program by two-thirds.
At the same time, we also recognize that we need to address the long legacy of overspending in Washington. That is why, shortly after taking office, Obama instructed his agency heads to go through the budget page by page, line by line, to eliminate what we don't need to help pay for what we do.
As a start, the president proposed billions of dollars in cuts, and he'll continue to fight for them and others in the upcoming budget. An analysis by the Washington Times concluded that in this first year, Obama had been more successful in getting his proposed cuts through Congress than his predecessor was in any of his eight years in office.
And even as Obama has pursued landmark health insurance reforms that will hold the insurance industry accountable and expand coverage to working Americans, he has insisted from the beginning that any reform legislation must not add to the federal deficit and must help reduce it over time. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the legislation making its way through Congress upholds this principle. As the president has said, the federal budget is like an ocean liner, not a motor boat, and it will take time to redirect its course. But the course correction that was so badly needed after the previous administration has begun in earnest.
There's an old saying that everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. The next time Karl Rove would like to offer us some advice, I'd urge him to take that to heart.
The writer is a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.
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