Steve Chapman

Most of the federal budget shortfall was the result of events that happened and policies that were implemented under the last president. Obama didn't triple the deficit; Bush did. But the anger and fear have been directed at his successor.

Obama's expensive ambitions have brought the issue back to center stage. He vows to cut the deficit in half. But under his budget blueprint, the government would accumulate some $7 trillion in new debt over the next decade.

Already, he is paying a political price for that stance. In March, most Americans approved of how he was handling the deficit. Today, most disapprove. His overall popularity has fallen as well.

Obama's fateful choice was the $787 billion stimulus package. Enacted in the depths of a recession in a desperate attempt to revive the economy, it soon spawned buyer's remorse. Coming after the 2008 stimulus package, bank rescue program and automaker bailout -- steps toward "socialism" taken by a Republican president -- it created the specter of the government as Incredible Hulk, rampaging out of control.

Maybe it's unfair for Obama to get the blame for that calamity. But by blithely adding to the problem, he validated the darkest predictions of his critics.

He also impeded his own fondest hope -- health care reform. Obama has long insisted that his plans were essential to getting control of spending. But given the ever-rising cost of Medicare and Medicaid, the claim sounds inherently bogus.

Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, notes another cause for dismay. After promising that health care reform would reduce the deficit, Obama now says only that it will not increase it. If it won't do any budgetary harm, it also won't do any good.

At this point, not making the problem worse may not appease a public worried that he and Congress are waltzing toward national bankruptcy. Obama, unlike Perot, didn't intend to make Americans care about the federal deficit. But now he may find it hard to get them to think about anything else.

Steve Chapman

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

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