Who is the Bigger Spender, Bush or Obama?

It is common to hear the average Republican rail against Barack Obama and his big spending administration.  Of course, Congress actually controls spending to a greater degree than the president, but there is no question that the president does have some control.  The president can submit proposals, use the bully pulpit, and, of course, veto bills.  While Congress can override presidential vetoes, that has not been the case for spending bills during the current and previous administrations.

Republicans are right to attack Obama for his big spending.  The problem is that they try to avoid discussion about what happened during the administration of George W. Bush.  They can say that it ended 4 years ago and that the past is the past, but that is not acceptable to me.  I will take seriously any Republican who fully repudiates the Bush era.  If they are not willing to condemn Bush as much as Obama, particularly when it comes to spending, then the person cannot be taken seriously.

Let’s forget about taxes, since all government spending is using resources.  It doesn’t matter if it is obtained through taxes now, taxes later, or through the hidden tax of inflation.  All government spending consists of the consumption of resources.  For the sake of this discussion, we’ll also forget the fact that all spending originates in Congress.  We can forget that because it has not been a significant factor in the budgets because of the lack of presidential vetoes.

So who is the bigger spender?  Is it Bush or Obama?

In nominal terms, there is no question that Obama is the bigger spender on average.  Obama has also accumulated far more debt, but I don’t want to focus on that.  This is partially due to the slow economy producing less in terms of tax collections for the government.

But let’s look at this on a year-over-year basis.  Total federal spending in 2001, the year that Bush entered office, was $1.863 trillion.  Total federal spending in 2009, the year that Bush left office, was $3.518 trillion.  Perhaps it is unfair to judge Bush on the 2009 numbers.  He wasn’t in office for the whole thing and it was during a terrible recession (plus it included part of Obama’s stimulus).  Even in 2008, the total spending was $2.983 trillion.

No matter how you cut it, Bush increased spending by more than one trillion dollars in 7 years.  He took spending from under two trillion dollars to almost $3 trillion in 2008 and he set the stage for $3.5 trillion in spending in 2009.

Total federal spending for 2013 is estimated at $3.803 trillion.

So while total spending has increased under Obama, it is actually to a much lesser degree than Bush.  Of course, you could argue that he started out with a bigger number in the first place.  But you could also argue that he inherited a bad economy (more welfare expenditures) and has to devote more spending to baby boomers with Medicare and Social Security.

This isn’t a defense of Obama at all.  Obama is as bad as the critics say.  The problem is that most of the critics (mostly the non-libertarian ones) don’t recognize just how terrible Bush was.  And they should also recognize that a Mitt Romney administration wouldn’t have likely cut spending either.

So who is the bigger spender?  Bush is actually much worse in percentage terms.  But they are both terrible.  And Congress is terrible too.