U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss transition plans in the White House Oval Office in Washington, U.S.,...
(C) Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

White House suggests Obama’s to blame for Trump’s budget mess

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders made a rare appearance in the briefing room yesterday, in large part because it was a special occasion: yesterday was the unveiling of Donald Trump’s new budget blueprint. After greeting reporters, Sanders declared, “President Trump’s 2020 budget, which was released today, builds upon incredible success and keeps his promises to the American people.”

That wasn’t a great start. After all, Donald Trump promised voters he wouldn’t cut Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security – and the new White House budget plan cuts all three. This was not an ideal time to boast about “keeping promises.”

But as part of the same briefing, a reporter asked Russell Vought, the president’s acting budget director, about a different Trump promise.

Q: One, you mentioned what the president promised during the campaign. During the campaign, he also promised that he would eliminate the national debt within eight years. And as you know, the debt at the end of his first year was at $20 trillion; last year it went to $21 trillion; last month, $22 trillion. So what happened to that promise? I mean, the president has added historically large numbers to the national debt instead of keeping a promise to actually pay it off.

VOUGHT: Look, again, the last administration nearly doubled the national debt.

Well, sort of. The national debt grew in the Obama era, just as it has in every modern presidential administration, but the annual budget deficit shrank considerably. In fact, during Obama’s first five years, the deficit was cut in half, and by Obama’s seventh year, it was down a trillion dollars as compared to when he took office.

To hear Russell Vought tell it, the deficit is still too large to start paying off the national debt. That’s true. The president promised Americans he’d start shrinking the debt “very quickly,” but that’s only because Trump is so unfamiliar with the most basic elements of fiscal policy.

The real trouble, however, is the idea that this is Obama’s fault. Eventually, the White House should probably recognize Trump’s responsibility for creating his own mess. Perhaps a chart would help.

This image, which relies on Congressional Budget Office data, shows annual budget deficits since the Reagan era. Red columns point to Republican administrations, blue columns point to Democratic administrations, and red-and-blue columns point to years in which the fiscal year was split between presidents from two different parties.

Pay particular attention to the right side of the image. Those shrinking blue columns? Those are the deficits in the Obama era. The growing red columns? Those are the deficits in the Trump era. (The $900 billion deficit for this year is a projection that may yet change.)

According to the new Trump budget, the annual deficits will soon top $1 trillion – and stay there until at least 2022.

To hear the White House tell it yesterday, we should apparently blame Obama for Trump’s deficit, which would make sense if Obama forced Republicans to pass massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations, but since the president and his allies did that all on their own, Vought’s argument doesn’t really make sense.

As Catherine Rampbell explained, “Federal deficits have widened immensely under Trump’s leadership. This is striking not only because he promised fiscal responsibility – at one time even pledging to eliminate the national debt within eight years – but also because it’s a historical anomaly. Deficits usually narrow when the economy is good and we’re not engaged in a major war. Trump’s own policies are to blame for this aberration.”

I realize that there’s a reflexive “blame Obama” talking point on Team Trump. But the new White House budget plan calls for deep cuts to the safety net and social-insurance programs because of a mess Republicans created, not one they inherited.