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Biden boasts that he has cut the deficit — even as the deficit streaks upward

Washington is headed for a fiscal cliff and no one in Congress or the White House seems to have a grip on the steering wheel.

President Biden greeted audience members at an event on Aug. 16 to recognize the first anniversary of the Inflation Reduction Act.Win McNamee/Getty

President Biden has a well-earned reputation as a fabulist. PolitiFact, the Poynter Institute’s accuracy project, debunks his assertions so often that its releases are wearily headlined “Latest False Fact-Checks on Joe Biden.” He was rebuked most recently for claiming that he had traveled to Ground Zero in New York on the day after the Twin Towers fell in 2001.

“I remember standing there the next day, and looking at the building,” Biden said in a speech at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I felt like I was looking through the gates of hell.”


In reality, as PolitiFact, CNN, Forbes, and other news sites pointed out, Biden didn’t go to New York on Sept. 12. He waited until Sept. 20 to visit the scene of devastation.

To be fair, how soon after 9/11 Biden visited Ground Zero isn’t, in itself, that big a deal. What makes it notable is that it is one of an ever-lengthening string of whoppers he has told — including, as CNN pointed out, three false personal anecdotes in a single speech last month.

But worse still is a particular fiscal boast of Biden’s that is so deceitful it has been repeatedly discredited by fact-checkers. All to no avail: Biden insists on trotting it out again and again, as he did in a speech on Labor Day.

“In my first two years, all this stuff — guess what?” the president said in Philadelphia during an appearance before the local Sheet Metal Workers union. “I cut the deficit $1.7 trillion. Here’s the bottom line: My economic plan is working. It’s reducing the deficit.”

Biden has made that claim in scores of speeches, many of which are posted on the White House website. According to an online database of his public remarks, he has recited that statistic 44 times this year alone.


But, to use a Bidenesque phrase, here’s the thing: He hasn’t cut the deficit by a penny.

What Biden’s brag is based on is that in fiscal year 2020, before he took office, the federal deficit shot up to $3.1 trillion, whereas by 2022, his second year as president, it had fallen to a little under $1.4 trillion. The difference is $1.7 trillion, the amount of red ink that Biden keeps claiming to have eliminated.

But the 2020 deficit was so gargantuan because of the sudden and unforeseen explosion of spending in response to COVID-19. The CARES Act, passed by near-unanimous votes in Congress and signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020, jacked up federal outlays by $2.2 trillion. Most of that had to be borrowed by the Treasury — that is, it was paid for by adding to the deficit. Later that year, another huge pandemic relief bill, for $900 billion, was passed by Congress and signed into law. Result: The budget deficit soared to levels never before experienced (or even imagined).

Yet that tidal wave of spending was always meant to be temporary. When the funding expired in 2022, the budget receded. The government’s borrowing levels dropped — not because of anything Biden did but because that’s how the law was written.

In fact, just weeks after Biden’s inauguration, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that the deficit in 2022 would be $1 trillion as the emergency outlays were winding down. By 2023, the CBO forecast, the deficit would have shrunk to $963 billion. That wasn’t what happened. The 2022 deficit was almost $1.4 trillion — 40 percent higher than projected. And the deficit for the current year is now headed toward $2 trillion.


Far from reducing the level of red ink as was expected when he became president, Biden has raised it.

Though he has sometimes acknowledged that “we need to cut spending,” outlays — and borrowing to cover those outlays — have kept going up on his watch. Early on, Biden signed an unnecessary stimulus package worth $1.9 trillion. Then came a $1.2 trillion “infrastructure” package, a huge increase in food stamp spending, and a continuation of the years-long halt in requiring student loans to be repaid.

Oblivious to all of it, Biden boasts that he has “cut the deficit” and proved himself more fiscally responsible than his predecessors. The truth is exactly the opposite.

“My economic plan is working,” the president said in his Labor Day speech. As a candidate for reelection, what else is he going to say? But the public isn’t buying it. In a survey released Thursday by Suffolk University and USA Today, 70 percent of US residents say the economy is getting worse. Nearly 6 in 10 respondents hold Biden responsible for the nation’s economic anxiety. The share of Americans living in poverty has risen dramatically since 2021, inflation has sent the price of pantry staples and gasoline skyward, and home mortgage rates are at their highest level in decades.


And all the while, Washington continues spending money it doesn’t have — the Treasury is borrowing $4.6 billion per day. Because interest rates are much higher than they were a couple of years ago, it costs the government much more to service its debt. So much more, in fact, that the United States now pays nearly as much in interest on the federal debt ($644 billion through the first 11 months of 2023) as it spends on national defense ($692 billion). Spending on Social Security and Medicare is up by double digits this year, while revenues are down because tax brackets are indexed for inflation.

We are headed for a fiscal cliff and no one in Washington seems to have a grip on the steering wheel. The $2 trillion federal deficit is a big flashing red light warning policymakers to curb their out-of-control spending. But Congress and the White House won’t take their foot off the accelerator. And in the face of onrushing disaster, the president keeps bragging that he has cut the deficit.

It isn’t only money that the US government lacks. The worsening fiscal shortfall is deadly serious — but even more ominous is our national deficit of leadership and good judgment. Dollars can be borrowed. But where can Americans find political leaders capable of dealing with this crisis?


Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on X (aka Twitter) @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit globe.com/arguable.