Center on Budget and Policy Priorities still blaming Bush tax cuts for...

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities still blaming Bush tax cuts for deficit even though they expired.


The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently updated their analysis of the underlying causes of our debt and deficit problems. Their key findings are summarized in these two charts.

Their shocking conclusion – Four years after he left office, the deficit is still all George W. Bush’s fault:

“Just two policies dating from the Bush Administration — tax cuts and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — accounted for over $500 billion of the deficit in 2009 and will account for nearly $6 trillion in deficits in 2009 through 2019 (including associated debt-service costs of $1.4 trillion).  By 2019, we estimate that these two policies will account for almost half — over $8 trillion — of the $17 trillion in debt that will be owed under current policies.  (See Figure 2.)” 

In fact, the CBPP project that our debt and deficits will continue to be George W. Bush’s fault for as far as the chart can see – throughout President Obama’s second term, through the next president’s first term, to 2019 and beyond. Before we take a look under the covers, it’s worth reviewing the history of their thesis.

In 2010 it became very important for Democratic strategists to explain to the electorate that our exploding federal spending and the consequent mushrooming deficits and debt were not the fault of the unified democratic party rule in place since the 2008 election. Voters were laboring under the mistaken impression that two trillion dollars of new spending passed in just two legislative acts ( Stimulus and Obamacare) on purely partisan votes in two years of one party democratic rule might have had something to do with it.   Au contraire mon ami.

This CBPP thesis was initially unveiled three years ago in February 2010, shortly after passage of Obamacare. The first version of the above charts made an appearance in an updated analysis in June that same year. Post mid-term election the GOP took control of the House restoring divided government and in 2011 the CBPP updated the analysis again. Variations of this analysis were picked up by MSM, embraced by the left-o-sphere and used as ammunition for the “Grand Bargain” negotiation. The very negotiation that ultimately failed and spawned the bipartisan “sequester” cuts just implemented.

I was dubious about the argument at the time, finding it to be – charitably speaking – disingenuous:

“Let’s think this through – the basis for the chart is that all costs for all time are attributable to a new policy that is enacted during the term of that president. Okay…Then how about we add a bar for FDR and load 70 years or so of total Social Security costs to this chart exclusively under his name? Or how about Truman who must bear the burden of all costs for maintaining US Troops in Korea for the last sixty years, and I guess Europe too with the Marshall Plan and NATO. Then we can move on to LBJ who gets all of the accumulated fifty years of costs for food stamps, welfare, medicare, and medicaid. Stack these three up, and neither GWB or OHB will show up as a rounding error. Now that I think about it, a standing army was a new policy enacted by George Washington – Once we pile up 200+ years of defense spending on George, I guess we finally have tracked down the real culprit for our deficit and insane spending.”

Dubious premise notwithstanding, as noted above the CBPP published the same argument yet again last week. They are still calling the tax cuts and war expenses a  “Bush Legacy” and attributing most of our current and future debt and deficit to Bush. Problem being – policy has changed since they started publishing this thesis three years ago and they are not acknowledging the facts in their graphic presentation. The argument itself, the dubious premise – those are exactly the same as when first presented three years ago. What has changed are the facts about political ownership of the policies they are tracking. And by ignoring these facts, the CBPP has moved from a  dubious, “disingenuous” argument to outright misrepresentation and falsehood.

The Bush policies invoked by the CBPP in their chart had expiration dates, negotiated terminations, or were superseded by completely different policies explicitly advocated and implemented by the Obama administration.  So to help the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities get the facts straight, I’ve hacked up a repaired version of their deficient deficit graphic:

Some facts supporting the new improved CBPP chart:

Bush Obama Tax Cuts:
The Bush Tax Cuts were never permanent. They had a sunset provision that expired in December 2010. In 2010 they were extended unchanged for two years over President Obama’s objection. Let’s be generous and call those two additional years Bush Legacy Tax Cuts. But on December 31, 2012 those tax cuts and that law and that legacy expired. It was replaced by new policy and new law that was supported and strong-armed through Congress by President Obama. President Obama promoted, fought for and signed this new policy into law. He took full credit and praised this new permanent policy of tax cuts for the 98%. His supporters insist that the cuts should be known as the Obama Tax Cuts. The Bush Tax Cuts are dead. Long Live the Obama Tax Cuts. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities should stop promoting a lie.

The Bush Iraq War is over:
In December 2008 President George W. Bush signed an agreement with Iraq to withdraw all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011. President Obama honored and executed that agreement. Iraq was a Bush Policy. The costs were a Bush legacy. But that policy and legacy ended with the agreement to withdraw in 2011 signed by George W. Bush. The Iraq War was a mistake. Bush negotiated our exit before he left office. Obama executed that exit. The War in Iraq is not driving our deficit anymore.

The Obama Afghanistan War has just started:
Candidate Obama campaigned on expanding our military presence in Afghanistan. As President he “surged” and expanded the scope of that war far beyond anything envisioned or intended by the Bush administration. Whether that decision was right or wrong remains to be seen. Regardless, it was a new policy that extended and expanded our military commitment in Afghanistan. Our Afghanistan policy is Barack Obama’s policy and not George W. Bush’s policy. The cost of our continuing expanded presence in Afghanistan belongs exclusively to the Obama administration.

To use one of our president’s favorite phrases – Let me be clear. Legacy Bush policies are no longer a meaningful contributor to our debt or deficit. Our deficit is driven primarily by Obama administration policy. Our debt is primarily driven by Obama administration policy. If there was any question before, it does not exist now. President Obama policy is primarily responsible for, has significantly contributed to, and is the primary reason for the debt and deficit problem our country faces.

The legacy of the Obama administration will be the debt and deficit he leaves behind.  He still has time to fix it. A  Grand Bargain negotiated in the next 30 days may be his last best chance.

X-posted from The Dividist Papers

  • mdgeorge

    The point of the chart isn’t “Bush is bad”, it’s “if you care about the deficit, then put your pet concern in perspective with the tax cuts and the wars”. I frankly don’t think anyone using that chart to make a valid point would care one whit whether you called them the “Bush tax cuts” or the “Obama tax cuts”. “Bush tax cuts” is just a handy moniker that is already part of the lexicon – everyone knows what you’re talking about when you say it.

    But again, this complete focus on debt and deficit. “The legacy of the Obama administration will be the debt and deficit he leaves behind.” Really? A president’s legacy is defined by what they do. The debt is a tiny fraction of the impact that president has on the future direction of the country, or even the future economic direction of a country. To say that a president’s legacy is defined by it demonstrates an incredibly narrow-minded perception of the role of government.

  • Jim S

    mdgeorge, don’t confuse mw with the facts. Don’t you understand that there is no interest on the debt racked up by having tax cuts while you have two ongoing wars, one of which should never have happened?

    One of the things mw says gives away his casual rejection of the facts.
    “In 2010 it became very important for Democratic strategists to explain to the electorate that our exploding federal spending and the consequent mushrooming deficits and debt were not the fault of the unified democratic party rule in place since the 2008 election.”

    How hard is to find out that there was not a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for two years? Not hard.

  • Tully

    I note that CBPP is a decidedly partisan org. I also note that had the tax cuts never taken place, GDP (and tax revenues) would have been severely impacted, so calling a chunk of the deficit the result of the tax cuts is specious. Tell me again why the current admin did not want to restore the bulk of those taxes? Oh yeah, because of the nasty impact on GDP that doing so during a recession would have had.

    This is a game both sides love to play, spewing their own brand of bullshit and then using it for slingshot ammo. The truth is that no one really knows for sure what would have happened in those alternate universes in which different things did or didn’t happen. All we can be sure of is that had those tax cuts never occured, GDP growth would have been lower and slower. And that restoring all of those taxes to former levels would likewise hamper growth.

    You know what’s really missing in that graph? Overall federal spending growth apart from war spending and stimulus spending. And the impact on federal revenues of the recession is hidden in the “economic downturn” area, which deserves some serious detailed breakdown into components. But we won’t get that because it would be off-message for the desired narrative. We also don’t see the growth-retarding effects of all the regulations and legislation passed in the last four years, yet one would think that would be somewhat relevant as well.


  • mw

    “But again, this complete focus on debt and deficit.” – MD

    The reason why I am focused on the debt is simple. I consider the level of and continuing accretion to the debt at current (post sequester) deficit levels to be an existential threat to the United States. IMHO opinion it is a far greater threat to the United States than terrorism, or a nuclear armed Iran, or a militarized China or pretty much anything else that I see out there. All of those represent potentially monstrous threats that could hurt us badly but do not have the capacity to destroy us. I believe that failing to deal realistically with our debt and deficit could destroy the United States as we know it.

    I am not alone in that opinion. I heard Robert Gates say much the same thing during Q&A at a recent speaking event. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen has also explicitly stated this same. Simpson, Bowles, senators past and present, and other leaders have warned that the debt is unsustainable and a threat to the economy.

    Good enough for me. Your mileage may vary.

  • mw

    “In 2010 it became very important for Democratic strategists to explain to the electorate that our exploding federal spending and the consequent mushrooming deficits and debt were not the fault of the unified democratic party rule in place since the 2008 election.”– mw

    “How hard is to find out that there was not a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for two years? Not hard.” -JS

    I am using the political science definition of divided and unified federal government in the US.

    The political science definition of one party unified government is when a majority in the House, Senate, and the President are all of the same party.

    The political science definition of divided government exists when neither major party has a majority in both the House and Senate as well as the sitting president.


    Morris Fiorina – Stanford University Author of “Divided Government”

    David Mayhew – Yale University Author of “Divided We Govern”

    My statement was factually accurate. Jim’s statement is also true (about not having a filibuster proof supermajority) but irrelevant as that is not the definition of a unified one party government in the United States.

    Jim, – I’ve included Amazon links to both books in case you are interested in furthering your education on the topic.

  • David P. Summers

    This game, a favorite of politicians, is fundamentally flawed to the degree that it always conflates “a” cause with “the” cause.

    If you identify spending or tax cuts, that you oppose, sufficient to make up the deficit you can say they are “a” cause (ignoring arguments about whether they stimulated the economy and other secondary effects). But in the end you are ignoring any spending that you might support, and other side oppose. In fact, the other side can play the same game, after all, they just have to find an equivalent amount of spending they opposed.

  • mdgeorge

    @Tully: I grant your wish: here’s another nice discussion I came across of our government spending, with more detailed graphs: . It seems apropos to this discussion.

    @mw: I followed those links, and in context the statements are not nearly as scary as you make them sound. I’m curious how you would rank climate change in the list of existential threats, since that one ranks pretty high on my list.

  • mw

    @mdgeorge. Lower.

    I’ve looked at climate change studies and find them to not be as scary as many make them sound. The climate is changing, as it has for every single second of every single day of it’s entire 4 billion year existence. That term is meaningless. There has been an observed global warming trend over the last hundred years or so. That trend has stopped or cooled over the the last dozen years or so. This despite CO2 concentrations continuing apace (a bad thing – putting crap in the atmosphere is always a bad thing). The more recent actual observations of global temperature have fallen far short of the alarming predictions of the climate models that garnered so much media attention at the turn of the century (and a Nobel for our sex poodle ex-VP). It is perfectly conceivable that the current state is a statistical blip and the warming will soon continue apace. It is also perfectly conceivable that a natural cycle having little or nothing to do with atmospheric CO2 is completing and we are starting on a downward trend. Another 10 years or so of observation will probably tell the tale. What I know now for a fact is that the AGW climate models of the late ’90s and early ’00’s failed to predict actual observations. And that means one thing – the science is not settled. I am confident the science will out and am content to wait and see.

    Permit me to anticipate a link to the recent press about a study claiming to identify observations of the highest temperature in 4,000 years. That data is not consistent with other studies and is coming under scientific scrutiny. We’ll see what happens with a little more peer review: