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The Law: Barack Obama and Budget Deficits: Signs of a Neo-Whig Presidency?


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: I thank Louis Fisher and Jeffrey K. Tulis for their insightful comments and suggestions.

Jasmine Farrier is an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisville and is author of Passing the Buck: Congress, the Budget, and Deficits and Congressional Ambivalence: The Political Burdens of Constitutional Authority.


In his muted leadership on deficit reduction, Barack Obama has highlighted the continuing tensions between the Constitution and the modern presidency. The framers did not structure nor envision vigorous day-to-day executive leadership on any subject and largely granted the power of the purse to Congress. Yet in response to new fiscal realities, the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 required presidents to think holistically about agency estimates and budget aggregates. But neither this act nor its belated 1974 congressional sibling was designed to rein in majority will to balance the budget. Deficits result from a complex stew of old and new policy decisions made by both branches. From a constitutional view, then, deficit reduction should be an equal burden on both branches. From a modern view, the president must lead the way. By that measure, President Obama has failed. With his deliberative style and open political sensitivity to a volatile economic and electoral landscape, he has not yet offered a clear and bold fiscal vision. He has also ignored the fiscal commission he created. This neo-Whig strategy keeps pressure on Congress but also excuses the president from the spirit and purpose of the 1921 law.