Our big-spender President

President Bush’s budget for fiscal year 2009, which goes to Congress, carries an alarming distinction: For the first time in the history of the republic, annual federal spending will cross the $3 trillion mark.

And federal spending got there early. That figure had been anticipated but not until next year when the new president would have been saddled with that honor.

Bush was also in office when the government crossed the $2 trillion mark in 2002 and the budget, thanks to the president’s free spending Republican allies in Congress, sank into deficit after four years of surpluses.

To get a sense of the growth of government, consider: Spending didn’t cross the $1 trillion mark until 1987 and the $100 billion threshold until 1972.

Bush also holds the single-year record for worst federal deficit, $412.7 billion in 2004, and this budget will come close to equaling that mark, calling for a deficit of around $400 billion this year and next. Given the cost of the stimulus package, fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no way around it other than tax increases and we know how he feels about those.

Nonetheless, the president insists he will keep his promise of balancing the budget by 2012. And this budget makes it seem as if he will — by freezing most domestic spending and making steep cuts — $208 billion — in the growth of entitlements, especially Medicare, that the president is fully aware Congress won’t go along with, especially in an election year.

The Bush budget highlights the intractability of the entitlements problem. He would cut the growth of Medicare by $178 billion but even so with all the Boomers retiring, the program will still grow by 5 percent a year.

It’s not the happiest way to leave office. But Bush to his credit did try to reform Social Security — although private accounts was probably a poor way to lead it off — and got precious little help from either party.

Think about it, though. It’s kind of awesome to live in a country that can spend $3 trillion a year, even if a chunk of it is borrowed from the sheikhs and the Chinese.