Steve Chapman

If Barack Obama achieves nothing else in his presidency, he may do something that once seemed impossible: give a lot of people who aren't crazy about his party a new respect for Bill Clinton.

Clinton, for all his appetites and excesses, was a cautious, centrist sort of Democrat. He had innumerable ideas for things the government could do, but most were small and fairly innocuous. He was willing to go along with Republicans on some of their sound ideas -- such as balancing the budget, reforming the welfare system and expanding foreign trade.

He focused on making government better, not making it bigger. He didn't greatly enlarge Washington's role in our lives. He proclaimed -- or conceded -- that the "era of big government is over."

But Clinton never foresaw Obama. From the sound of his budget speech last week, the new president hopes the era of big government is just beginning.

It's hard to overstate the expansion Obama proposes. Leave aside the supposedly temporary spending binge that constitutes his stimulus package. Under his budget blueprint, total spending would soar by roughly 75 percent above what it was last year.

Of whom else could that be said? Do you expect to be spending 75 percent more 10 years from now? Does your employer?

The budget deficit, which Clinton (with the help of a Republican Congress) eliminated, would be with us forever. After the gargantuan $1.75 trillion shortfall this year, it would decline briefly before climbing to more than $700 billion a year.

Obama's fiscal blueprint builds on profligate habits established by George W. Bush. Under Clinton, federal spending fell to 18.4 percent of gross domestic product -- the lowest level since 1966. By 2007, it was up to 20 percent. By 2019, according to the administration, it would rise to 22.6 percent.

This increase may not sound like much, but it is. Before the current recession began, reports budget analyst Brian Riedl of the conservative Heritage Foundation, government spending amounted to about $24,000 per household. Under Obama's plan, it would exceed $32,000 per household (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Someone will have to pay for every cent of that spending, and it won't be just the rich.

During the campaign, Obama often came across as a sensible pragmatist with an appreciation for both the value of markets and the limits of government -- a Bill Clinton with self-discipline. He often painted Hillary Clinton as an old-fashioned, command-and-control Democrat.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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