There’s an email making the rounds that tells a story about two little girls who run for class president in grade school. One girl works hard, runs a good campaign, and promises to do her best if elected. The other girl promises to give everyone ice cream. The teacher asks the children how they’ll pay for the ice cream. They have no idea, but they vote for the ice cream girl anyway.
That, says the email, is how Barack Obama won the election. He promised to give away free stuff that we can’t afford.
Bill O’Reilly got the ball rolling on this theory when he said, “It’s not a traditional America anymore, and there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama.”
Earlier that day, a Romney supporter told me that he expected his candidate to lose because Obama “bought” votes by “giving away” food stamps and welfare.
We have such short memories.
It was the Republican president George W. Bush who expanded eligibility for food stamps in the 2002 farm bill. It was 99 Republican representatives who voted to expand the program further in the 2008 farm bill. And it was that same Republican president who waived one of the work requirements for 32 states in November 2008.
That’s why the food stamp program added more recipients under Bush than it did under Obama.
The welfare claim is even more ridiculous. We may not remember the food stamp expansion under Bush, but surely we remember welfare reform under Bill Clinton. In 1996, Congress ended “welfare as we know it” and replaced it with “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families” (TANF), a program whose budget hasn’t changed in 16 years. It was $16.6 billion in 1996, and it’s $16.6 billion today.
In the year before welfare reform, 4.7 million Americans received assistance from the program. Today, only 2 million receive assistance from TANF.
When TANF was created, 68 percent of families with children in poverty received welfare. Today, only 27 percent get it.
Low-income entitlement spending has increased, but it would’ve increased under any president. Most of it is what economists call “automatic stabilizers” because they automatically increase during recessions. More people become unemployed. More people fall into poverty. More people lose their health insurance. So more people qualify for unemployment insurance and food stamps and Medicaid.
Since the end of the recession, low-income entitlement spending has been falling. In the next decade, the Congressional Budget Office says that it will return to the same level it’s been for the last forty years: a little more than 1 percent of our nation’s income. If you exclude health care, where costs are rising for completely separate reasons, the CBO expects low-income entitlement spending to fall below its forty-year average in coming years.
The CBO is making these projections, of course, based on the Obama administration’s budget. The president who is supposedly giving away free stuff, it turns out, is actually planning to reduce low-income entitlements.
What’s particularly galling about the Republicans’ argument is that Romney was the candidate who couldn’t explain how he’d pay for everything he was promising. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add a $480 billion tax cut to a $1.3 trillion deficit. Romney was the candidate who wanted to add $200 billion in new Pentagon spending every year.
It was the Republican president George W. Bush who turned a surplus into a deficit. It was Bush who took the nation into two wars while passing two massive tax cuts. It was Bush who signed Medicare Part D without figuring out how to pay for it.
Are we all suffering from a collective bout of amnesia?
The Romney camp’s explanation for their electoral loss fits right in with the broader picture they tried to paint of the Obama presidency. In their world, Barack Obama “has fundamentally changed the relationship between government and the people of this country,” as Jon Stewart put it in his debate with O’Reilly.
But it’s simply not true.
And the truth matters. Obama didn’t win the election because he’s giving away free stuff, and perpetrating such a myth only serves to obscure what’s really going on and what really needs to be done in Washington.
This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.