DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's stay with money and politics. On the campaign trail, President Obama and Mitt Romney have been feuding recently over the deficit. At issue is just how to characterize the Obama administration's record on spending. Depending on who you listen to, the president is either an out of control spender or he's down right stingy. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: For whatever reason, both Romney and President Obama chose campaign stops in Iowa to talk about the debt and deficit, and the setting seemed to inspire some unusually vivid language.
MITT ROMNEY: A prairie fire of debt is sweeping across Iowa and across the nation.
KEITH: This is Romney on May 15th in Des Moines.
ROMNEY: And rather than putting out that spending fire, he's been feeding it. He has spent more and borrowed more.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But you know, he left out some facts. You know, his speech was more like a cow pie of distortion.
KEITH: This was President Obama last Thursday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, also in Des Moines.
OBAMA: But what my opponent didn't tell you was that federal spending since I took office has risen at the slowest pace of any president in almost 60 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)
KEITH: And this is where you get to one of the fundamental challenges of talking about the federal budget. Maya MacGuineas is president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. She says it's all about where you start and what you compare it to.
MAYA MACGUINEAS: People can end up telling vastly different stories with the same sets of numbers. They don't even have to lie about the numbers. They just have to cherry pick which ones they use.
KEITH: In the case of Mr. Obama's statement, he compares spending levels during his term to spending levels in the months before he took office. As you might remember, a whole lot happened in the months before his inauguration. The economy tanked, boosting spending on things like unemployment benefits and food stamps, and the financial crisis prompted the bank bailout and the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
MACGUINEAS: It's sort of as though you say, hey, I maxed out my credit card and then I only added a little bit more the next month. That's not really showing that you're being fiscally responsible.
KEITH: On the president's watch, there was the stimulus, with its heavy dose of one-time spending, and later the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts. Again, Maya MacGuineas.
MACGUINEAS: The truth is that the president has made the fiscal situation worse in terms of how much debt there is. Now, many people, and I would include myself in this, would say, well, it had to get worse.
KEITH: So while Mitt Romney's claim that there's been a lot of government spending in recent years is accurate, it's also all about context. Alice Rivlin, an economist at the Brookings Institution, argues no matter who was president, much of this spending would had to have happened.
ALICE RIVLIN: The spending has been primarily in things related to the recession or designed to create jobs.
KEITH: Rivlin and MacGuineas both say the key is finding a way to more sustainable spending levels going forward to begin to cut the debt and the deficit before it's too late.
RIVLIN: The tragedy is that our politics has degenerated into this blame game. We should be looking at the problems that beset us now and saying how can we fix it.
KEITH: Though Rivlin doesn't have a lot of hope of that happening before the election.
Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.