Steve Chapman

What brought this was the spending surge that began in 2008 under President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama. After years of comparatively moderate irresponsibility, the government began spraying money with a fire hose -- on bank bailouts, insurance company bailouts, automaker bailouts and stimulus packages.

Between fiscal year 2007 and fiscal year 2008, the deficit nearly tripled, and the following year it tripled again. Citizens got the sense that we were no longer sliding toward bankruptcy; we were tumbling off a cliff.

As polling expert Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute puts it, "Cumulative sticker shock has set in." In March 2009, 52 percent of Americans endorsed Obama's handling of the deficit. Today, only 36 percent approve.

The consequence is growing resistance to spending initiatives. Even the Obama stimulus package was smaller than most liberal economists wanted. The president has been induced to propose a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending -- and congressional leaders in both parties have bought in.

His budget director has asked every federal agency to come up with cuts amounting to 5 percent of their outlays. Democrats had to cut back a proposed jobs bill, and even in shrunken form it got voted down Wednesday by the Senate. For the first time in quite a while, politicians are forced to trim their plans to match a public mood of frugality.

Does that signal a lasting skepticism about the expansion of government programs? Maybe not. Bowman tells me the historical pattern is that "when we think we and our families are doing OK, we seem to be more comfortable letting government do a bit more."

But the past is not always a guide to the future. The fiscal events of the last two years have been seared into the national consciousness in a way no previous spending binge has. For the foreseeable future, at least, there will be a heavy burden on those who favor more expenditures to justify them.

We have not reached a new era of consistent budgetary restraint. But it looks like the age of excess is over.

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Steve Chapman

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

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