Reagan, not Obama, was the big spender. While there was a brief burst of government spending early in the Obama administration — mainly for emergency aid programs like unemployment insurance and food stamps — that burst is long past. Indeed, at this point, government spending is falling fast, with real per capita spending falling over the past year at a rate not seen since the demobilization that followed the Korean War.
Why was government spending much stronger under Reagan than in the current slump? “Weaponized Keynesianism” — Reagan’s big military buildup — played some role. But the big difference was real per capita spending at the state and local level, which continued to rise under Reagan but has fallen significantly this time around.
And this, in turn, reflects a changed political environment. For one thing, states and local governments used to benefit from revenue-sharing — automatic aid from the federal government, a program that Reagan eventually killed but only after the slump was past. More important, in the 1980s, anti-tax dogma hadn’t taken effect to the same extent it has today, so state and local governments were much more willing than they are now to cover temporary deficits with temporary tax increases, thereby avoiding sharp spending cuts.