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.