Obama rejects Osbornomics: "we can't simply cut our way to prosperity"

The US president's statement on the fiscal cliff deal demonstrates how he has rejected the coalition's approach.

One fact that the many Conservatives who supported Barack Obama's re-election conveniently ignored is that the US president has long rejected the coalition's approach to the economy. Unlike George Osborne, who pushed the UK off its own fiscal cliff in 2010, when he slashed infrastructure spending and raised VAT to 20 per cent, Obama recognises that austerity must not come at the expense of growth. After Congress approved the fiscal agreement reached on New Year's Eve, he commented last night:

We can't simply cut our way to prosperity. Cutting spending has to go hand-in-hand with further reforms to our tax code so that the wealthiest corporations and individuals can't take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren't available to most Americans. And we can't keep cutting things like basic research and new technology and still expect to succeed in a 21st century economy. So we're going to have to continue to move forward in deficit reduction, but we have to do it in a balanced way, making sure that we are growing even as we get a handle on our spending.

For Obama, economic growth is a precondition of deficit reduction, not a hoped-for outcome (remember Osborne's "expansionary fiscal contraction"?) Having maintained stimulus after 2008, the US is now in a stronger position to withstand austerity. While the UK suffered a double-dip recession (and is at risk of a triple-dip), the US economy has grown for 13 consecutive quarters and is now 2.2 per cent above its pre-recession peak. The UK, by contrast, remains 3.1 per cent below.

The deal reached between Obama and the Republicans postponed, rather than averted, the $109bn of spending cuts that were due to take effect from 1 January. The stage is now set for a showdown on 1 March when the Republicans will once again use a vote on raising the US debt ceiling (hitherto a formality under Republican and Democrat presidents alike) to extort large cuts to social security and Medicare. But while Obama has signalled that he is "very open to compromise" - there will be significant cuts - it is clear that the US president will veto any measures that pose a significant threat to growth. For the UK, however, the wrangling in Washington is an unhappy reminder that its fate was settled long ago.

Barack Obama greets George Osborne during an official arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House on 14 March, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.