If you're going to argue that the size of government is the defining debate in modern politics, you should probably explain why the government is so big. It's not because of new laws. It's because of old laws.
David Brooks latest column argued that "as government grew," moderates and independents recoiled and conservatives revolted. Brooks is right that people are angry. Four out of five Americans don't trust the government according to a new Pew poll, the highest level of public dissatisfaction in history. But that anger has much more to do with the recession -- plus a dash of complex conservative angst -- than with Obama's new spending initiatives.
Let's look at the numbers: the feds spent $3.5 trillion in 2009, $600 billion more than in fiscal year 2008. What made the US government so big? Jim Horney at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explained that some of it was natural growth in government. Discretionary spending tends to increase every year, and defense spending in particular perked up to catch up with war costs.
But much of the changes came from mandatory increases as a result of the recession. Existing laws to provide aid to the unemployment added $80 billion because more Americans lost their jobs. Another $20 billion went to SNAP assistance because more Americans became eligible for food stamps. Then there are the bailouts: about $250 billion went through TARP and stabilizing payments to Fannie and Freddie initiated in bills passed under President Bush and administered by the Obama administration.