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Obama and the Deficit: How the Republicans Turned Their Greatest Strength Into a Weakness

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Trawling through the immense amount of polling data that has emerged from last week's US presidential election, the figures that jumped out at me were around those for whom managing the growing American debt problem was a priority. In exit polls, those who were asked what they thought was the most important issue at stake in the election and responded by saying "reducing the deficit" voted for Obama over Romney at a staggering two to one ratio (66% Obama v 32% Romney). Considering that received wisdom is what gets US swing voters to plump for the Republicans is their perceived financial competence, together with the fact that the Romney-Ryan ticket campaigned a great deal on this particular issue and yet still lost so heavily amongst those voters who care about it suggests that the Republicans may be in even more trouble than most pundits think.

There is a rational reason for this. Republicans, at least since and most definitely including Reagan, have not been particularly good at reducing or even keeping the US deficit relatively under control. In fact, they have been incredibly terrible at it. George W Bush is a good case in point: over the course of his eight years in the White House, he ran a deficit every single year, adding a total of £2.66 trillion to the national debt before interest (which as all deficit enthusiasts know is quite substantial in and of itself). Most of this is thanks to the GOP magical formula of less taxes and greater defence spending. It should be noted that the Democrats have a distinctly mixed CV on handing deficits themselves. Clinton actually ran surpluses near the end of his time in office, but the deficit has gone astronomic since Obama became president. However, controlling spending is not the Democrats USP, so it matters a lot less to their electoral chances.

Even if you chuck aside history, if you look at the Romney-Ryan economic plan it basically equates to the same old, same old: lowering taxes while raising the defence budget. The Economist reckons this course of action would have added a whopping $7 trillion pre-interest to the debt over four years. So it does make sense that most Americans who pay attention to this stuff were aware of the fallacy of the GOP's spending plans and voted the other way, as the polling numbers suggest.

This is a growing problem for all centre-right parties throughout the democratic world. People like the benefits of a larger state but don't want to have to pay for it (leading to moments like the now legendary 'Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare' Tea Party placard). You don't need to be an economic genius to understand that if you spend more while making less, you're going to run into debt problems eventually. And it's a problem the Republicans better come up with better answers to in 2016 if they want the White House back.