I missed watching the State of the Union live last night but started it up a short time after it ended without listening to any commentary or seeing what anyone was saying on Twitter first. My initial response was that Biden looked and sounded like someone a lot more serious about bipartisanship early on. He sounded sincere when he congratulated Speaker McCarthy and Mitch McConnell. He praised bipartisanship saying, “And to my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this Congress as well.”
It was a long way from his “Dark Brandon” screed last year with all the bright red backlighting. Maybe, just maybe I thought to myself he’s going to try to turn a corner now that Democrats have lost the House.
But his tone changed about 30 minutes in. Trying his best to put a good spin on his economic record, Dark Brandon reemerged.
Under the previous administration, the American deficit went up four years in a row.
Because those record deficits, no president added more to the national debt in any four years than my predecessor.
Nearly 25 percent of the entire national debt that took over 200 years to accumulate was added by just one administration alone, the last one. There are the facts, check it out. Check it out.
Everything he said there is strictly true but also intentionally misleading and dishonest. This is lying by omission. Here’s a chart tweeted out by the White House a few months ago which is trying to tell the same basic story:
The federal deficit has come down both years that President Biden has been in office.
The federal deficit went up every single year that Donald Trump was President. pic.twitter.com/zYnMKKW4sv
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) October 21, 2022
As Biden has presented these facts last night, it sounded as if President Trump was the most profligate spender in the history of the Republic. But of course presidents don’t spend money. That’s left up to Congress. And the record breaking deficits Biden is talking about happened most dramatically in Trump’s last year in office, 2020.
What was happening in 2020? If you said the global pandemic and the shutting down of the entire United States for months at a time, that’s correct. And so a divided Congress (Democrats controlled the House and Republicans controlled the Senate) began spending like crazy to try to keep the economy afloat while many people were stuck at home.
In March, they passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act aka the CARES Act which was a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill. But the important part is that the CARES act was passed on a nearly unanimous, bipartisan basis. The vote was 419-6 in the House and 96-0 in the Senate.
In April, Congress passed another big spending bill called the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act. That $484 billion bill was also passed on a bipartisan basis. The final vote in the House was 388-5.
And if Democrats had had their way in late 2020, there would have been another $3 trillion spending bill but that one was shot down in favor of a more modest bill. Those big, bipartisan bills and a decline in revenue also associated with the pandemic are mostly why the deficit shot up so dramatically in 2020. But you don’t have to take my word for it, here’s the NY Times fact check:
Mr. Biden is correct that a quarter of the national debt was accumulated over the four years Mr. Trump was in office. But the former president did not unilaterally add to that amount. In fact, two major factors driving that increase were mandatory spending levels set long before Mr. Trump took office and bipartisan spending bills that were passed to address the pandemic.
From the 2018 to 2021 fiscal years, the government collected $14.3 trillion in revenue, and spent $21.9 trillion, according to data compiled by the Congressional Budget Office. In that time, mandatory spending on programs such as Social Security and Medicare totaled $14.7 trillion alone. Discretionary spending totaled about $5.8 trillion.
The budget estimated that Mr. Trump’s tax cuts — which passed in December 2017 with no Democrats in support — added roughly another $1 trillion to the federal deficit from 2018 to 2021, even after factoring in economic growth spurred by the tax cuts.
But other drivers of the deficit include several sweeping measures that had bipartisan approval. The first coronavirus stimulus package, which received near unanimous support in Congress, added $2 trillion to the deficit over the next two fiscal years. Three additional spending measures contending with Covid-19 and its economic ramifications added another $1.4 trillion.
Just to hammer this point home, here’s the Government Accountability Office from May 2022:
At $2.8 trillion, the FY 2021 budget deficit was the second largest in history—just short of the FY 2020 deficit of $3.1 trillion. These historically large deficits were due primarily to the economic disruptions caused by COVID-19—which decreased revenues in FY 2020—and the additional spending by the federal government in response to help the nation recover from the pandemic.
So you had President Biden talking a good game about bipartisanship early on in the speech but then he threw a big bipartisan spending effort under the bus and blamed it on “the previous administration.” Again, he’s not technically lying but the level of deceit is stunning.
And from there, he went on to claim Republicans were trying to cut Social Security and Medicare. “Some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s a majority.” This is a claim Democrats have been making for months based on a plan proposed by a single Senator and rejected by nearly everyone else including Mitch McConnell, Speaker McCarthy and former president Trump. Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post gave this same basic claim 4 Pinocchios last September. Biden had to back away from this in real time during the speech last night. Again, here’s the NY Times:
President Biden implied that the Republicans who wanted to allow Social Security and Medicare to sunset were tying those demands to the fight over raising the nation’s debt limit.
It is true that a couple of Republicans have suggested allowing those entitlement programs to sunset as mandatory spending, instead bringing them up for regular renewal. But Republicans have recently distanced themselves from such efforts. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican of California, has said that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are “off the table” in talks over raising the debt ceiling, which Congress must vote to do in the coming month or risk a default on the government’s bills. Likewise, President Donald J. Trump has warned Republicans to leave the programs alone in the negotiations. Mr. Biden, nodding to lawmakers responding to his speech, acknowledged that it seemed that cuts to the programs were “off the books now.”
Again, Biden had a choice last night in how to approach Republicans. He started off pretty well but by the midpoint in his speech he’d forgotten all about bipartisanship and went in for the cheapest possible point scoring.
All he had to do here, to change the tone, was to admit that deficits in 2020 were bipartisan spending that all Democrats supported at the time. Why couldn’t he say that instead of trying to turn this issue into a partisan hand grenade? If Biden sincerely hoped to turn a corner last night, he should have kept Dark Brandon from trying to rewrite recent economic history.
Update: Even CNN gets this right.
It is true that the federal deficit fell by $1.7 trillion under Biden in the 2021 and 2022 fiscal years, including a record $1.4 trillion drop in 2022 – but it is highly questionable how much credit Biden deserves for this reduction. Biden did not mention that the primary reason the deficit fell so substantially was that it had skyrocketed to a record high under then-President Donald Trump in 2020 because of bipartisan emergency pandemic relief spending, then fell as expected when the spending expired as planned. Independent analysts say Biden’s own actions, including his laws and executive orders, have had the overall effect of adding to current and projected future deficits, not reducing those deficits.