NY Times, LA Times uncritically reported Bush's misleading deficit claim

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported President Bush's claim that his administration had achieved its goal of cutting the 2004 budget deficit in half (as a percentage of gross domestic product) by 2009. But neither newspaper noted that the 2004 deficit figure Bush claims to have halved was a possibly inflated projection that the deficit never reached. When compared to the actual 2004 deficit, the 2006 shortfall remains above the halfway point.

January 4 articles in both The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times reported President Bush's claim in a January 3 Wall Street Journal op-ed that his administration had achieved its goal of cutting the 2004 budget deficit in half (as a percentage of gross domestic product) by 2009. But neither outlet noted that the 2004 deficit figure Bush claims to have halved is the Office of Management and Budget's (OMB) projected shortfall from that year -- $521 billion, or 4.5 percent of GDP -- which greatly exceeded the actual 2004 deficit of $412 billion, or 3.5 percent of GDP. When compared with the projected 2004 shortfall, the 2006 deficit of $248 billion, or 1.9 percent of GDP, is indeed less than half as large. But when compared to the actual 2004 deficit, the 2006 shortfall remains above the halfway point.

In January 2004, Bush vowed to "cut the deficit in half over the next five years" as a percentage of GDP. The White House pegged this pledge to the OMB's projected FY 2004 deficit, therefore making the goal a deficit of 2.25 percent of GDP or less by 2009. In the wake of this pledge, however, numerous economists noted that the OMB projection appeared to be severely inflated, making it much easier for Bush to meet his asserted goal. For instance, on February 3, 2004, The New York Times reported:

William Gale, a budget analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Bush had implicitly made his deficit-reduction goal easier by projecting a surprisingly high budget deficit of $521 billion this year. Under the current budget plan, Mr. Bush can fulfill his deficit pledge even if the government has a shortfall of $237 billion in 2009. By contrast, the administration's budget plan last year proposed reducing the deficit to $190 billion by 2008.

Indeed, the actual FY 2004 budget figures released by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) later that year showed a deficit of $412 billion, or 3.5 percent of GDP. But rather than tailor his earlier pledge to the actual shortfall -- which would have lowered his targeted 2009 deficit to 1.75 percent of GDP -- Bush stuck with the original OMB projection.

The Bush administration commonly issues high deficit projections, allowing the White House to later take credit for the actual, smaller deficit figures, as The Washington Post explained on January 13, 2006:

This is the third straight year in which the White House has summoned reporters well ahead of the official budget release to project a higher-than-anticipated deficit. In the past two years, when final deficit figures have come in at record or near-record levels, White House officials have boasted that they had made progress, since the final numbers were below estimates.

Indeed, when the CBO announced in October 2006 an FY 2006 deficit of $248 billion, or 1.9 percent of GDP, the Bush administration immediately trumpeted that it had reached its 2009 goal three years early. An October 11, 2006, White House press release read: "This Level Surpasses By $12 Billion President Bush's Original Goal Of Cutting The Deficit In Half By FY2009 From Its FY2004 Projected Peak Of $521 Billion, Or 4.5 Percent Of GDP."

In his Journal op-ed, Bush asserted, "We met our goal of cutting the deficit in half three years ahead of schedule" -- a boast he repeated in public later that day. A January 4 New York Times article quoted Bush making this claim but failed to note that the 2006 deficit in fact amounted to more than half of the actual 2004 shortfall:

In an opening salvo on Wednesday, Mr. Bush proclaimed that he would present a budget next month that manages to project a balanced budget by 2012 while permanently extending more than $1 trillion in tax cuts.

"It is also a fact that our tax cuts have fueled robust economic growth and record revenues," Mr. Bush wrote in an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal. "We met our goal of cutting the deficit in half three years ahead of schedule."

A January 4 Los Angeles Times article also uncritically reported Bush's claim:

President Bush, boasting that it took only two years to cut in half the record budget deficit created early in his tenure, said Wednesday that he would propose wiping out the other half by 2012 - a goal that could tie the hands of the Democrats as they take control of Congress today.

[...]

The White House says the deficit was cut in half between 2004, when it was projected before the year began to be 4.5% of the nation's economic output, and 2006, when it turned out to be 1.9%.

By contrast, a January 3 Associated Press article explained how Bush's claim of halving the deficit relied on the projected 2004 deficit rather than the actual shortfall:

Bush can rightly state that he has fulfilled his 2004 campaign pledge to cut the deficit in half by the time he leaves office. In fact, he can say he has done it three years early. But in making that claim, the president is using the administration's original forecast of what the 2004 deficit was expected to be -- not what it actually turned out to be.

Back when Bush made his promise, the administration was predicting that the 2004 deficit would be $521 billion. That prediction turned out to be off by $100 billion. To achieve the feat of slicing the actual 2004 deficit number in half, the federal deficit Bush was highlighting would have to have dropped to $206 billion, not $247.7 billion.

The long-term deficit picture remains bleak.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that the deficit for the current budget year, which ends next Sept. 30, will rise to $286 billion. Over the next decade, the office forecasts that the deficit will total $1.76 trillion.

A January 4 Post article also noted the Bush's "starting point" was an inflated projection "that the deficit never reached":

After the deficit spiraled to a record $413 billion in 2004, Bush promised to cut it in half within five years. Using as a starting point a higher projection that the deficit never reached, Bush achieved his goal last year when the deficit fell to $248 billion on the strength of better-than-expected revenue. Bush credits his tax cuts with spurring the economy and in turn producing more tax receipts.

Posted In
Economy, Budget
Network/Outlet
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times
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