A graph that purports to establish Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as the two most fiscally conservative presidents in modern history has been making its way through the blogosphere, after first originating on Century Foundation Fellow Mark Thoma’s Economist’s View blog. Thoma’s submitter explains:

Seeing the Krugman commentary comparing real government spending under Obama and Reagan made me curious about what it looks like if you express it in per capita terms? In particular, how does the Obama period compare with other presidencies in terms of penury/austerity versus spendthriftness?


Ranking since Johnson (starting in 1968), and using the first-quarter comparisons, and calculating growth under Obama through 2011Q4, Clinton is the most austere, followed by Obama. The most spendthrift are (1) Nixon-Ford, (2) Reagan, and (3) Bush II.

So, the story one frequently hears on the right about the massive expansion of government spending under Obama—and liberal profligacy in general—just doesn’t hold up to the facts. Still, there’s been some pushback from commenters wondering about the role of inflation, or whether the story changes when you divide government spending into separate categories for national defense and human resources (employment and social services, Medicare, Social Security, veterans benefits, et cetera). So here is my own version of the graph, which shows annualized growth in government spending on national defense and human resources througout the last seven presidencies, from Q1 to Q1. All of the data is from the Office of Management and Budget historical tables.

And here is annualized real growth in government spending (adjusted using a composite deflator):

No matter how you choose to look at it, the story remains essentially the same. In both graphs, Clinton and Obama stand out as the relative fiscal conservatives next to their spendthrift Republican peers. You can state whatever objections or counterfactuals you like—Reagan was fighting the Cold War, Clinton benefited from a peace dividend, Obama inherited a recession—but, as The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson points out,”the bottom line is that it is really, truly time for the myth about Big Spender Obama to die.”