Most Americans, especially the Obama administration, hoped that summer 2010 would be the summer of recovery. It turned out to be the summer of discovery as Americans discovered that the increasingly larger numbers on the national debt clock would actually have to decrease. The result: the November 2010 elections, during which the Tea Party saved the Republican Party and walloped the Democrats. This summer could be characterized as the summer of dysfunction. Washington gridlocked, and there were more fireworks than the Fourth of July. The result: a debt downgrade by a firm infamous for being too generous with its financial rankings. However, like anyone who has suffered through a traffic jam understands, gridlock only requires one bad driver. In summer 2011, the Obama White House failed majestically to acknowledge or address the greatest obstacle to America’s future success.
To be fair, both Democrats and Republicans have contributed to the national debt. The annual deficits under the Bush administration may have been merely a tenth of the size of the deficits under the Obama administration, but Obama is correct in mentioning that he inherited a large national debt and came into office during a period of economic turmoil. He’s done much to attempt to solve the latter but seems alarmingly willing to ignore the former. The national debt this past year was approximately $14 trillion, already a stunningly large sum, but miniscule compared to the future. Largely led by growth in the already expensive entitlement programs, the unfunded obligations of the United States government currently amount to a staggering $61.6 trillion, or $528,000 per household. By 2049, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will consume all tax revenue, assuming that tax revenues remain at their historical average.
While President Obama is not fully responsible for these absolutely unsustainable obligations, he is the President of the United States. Presidents are expected to lead not only their party but also the nation—without exception. Inheriting a national problem is not reason to ignore it. Lincoln inherited a nation on the brink of Civil War; he fought for the Union. Reagan inherited a seemingly perpetual Cold War; he defeated an evil empire. Obama inherited a debt crisis. He should have tackled the root of the problem: out of control growth in entitlement spending.
The new Republican majority in the House provided Obama with a genuine chance to tackle the entitlement crisis without fear of political retaliation. Paul Ryan even did the heavy lifting and proposed a plan to reform entitlements and pay off the national debt. Obama responded with a heavily political speech and his own “plan” so vague that, when the Congressional Budget Office was asked to score it, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf responded, “We don’t estimate speeches.” During the entire debt ceiling debate that engulfed the summer, the President of the United States could not come up with a single legitimate plan. The only existing alternative to the Republican plan—the status quo—is entirely unacceptable. Retirement security programs are on their deathbeds, the entire nation is in the sick room, and the President is on holiday from obligations. Raising taxes on “billionaires and millionaires” (plus all those making $250,000 or more) would pay for a mere few days of government spending—clearly not a credible solution.
Compromise requires that two sides come to the table with conflicting proposals and meet in the middle. When one side lacks a plan, it’s near impossible to come to terms. The results of this summer’s debt debate should have been real, bipartisan entitlement reform, but a bipartisan compromise would require that both sides have a plan. For the dysfunction to begin and the recovery to begin, America needs a President who will recognize and address the debt crisis in good faith. The nation needs an upgrade in leadership.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House.