I’m a big fan of Obama’s Cabinet picks – particularly Robert Gates at Defense and Tom Daschle at HHS – but while he gets an A- in that department (I have small doubts about Leon Panetta, among others), I’ve got to drop him to a C- so far for leadership. What’s sticking in my craw is this statement from the president-elect at a news conference on Tuesday:
One of the measures of irresponsibility that we've seen is the enormous federal debt that has accumulated, a number that has doubled in recent years. As we just discussed, my budget team filled me in on - Peter Orszag now forecasts that, at the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget, that we've already looked - we're already looking at a trillion-dollar budget deficit or close to a trillion-dollar budget deficit, and that potentially we've got trillion-dollar deficits for years to come, even with the economic recovery that we are working on at this point.
Did you catch that? Everybody’s favorite Democrat says we are potentially looking at “trillion-dollar deficits for years to come.” We all knew he was running on the promise of change, but whenever I thought of our record-high $450 billion federal budget deficit, I naturally thought “change” meant a return to fiscal responsibility, not bigger deficits. Yes, he was saying that these deficits would only happen if there is “a change in the way that Washington does business,” but he did not tell us how to make that change or what it would look like, only that his advisors were studying the issue.
Given the economic, environmental, and infrastructure crises currently facing this country, I understand the need for a trillion-dollar deficit this year and maybe even next. As a friend observed last night, at least there’s a reason for this deficit, unlike the Bush 2 deficits based on tax cuts for the rich and an unnecessary war. But to suggest that there’s a better-than-even chance that we’ll see such deficits for more than two years is to give up all hope of fiscal responsibility. Surely the budget can be back to more-sensible deficits within four years and balanced by the end of eight. These deficits aren’t just economically unsustainable, they are also a threat to our national security, and anyone who refuses to try and bring them under control demonstrates a failure of leadership.
To be fair, Obama’s statement was a part of larger remarks regarding government accountability and transparency: “The reason I raise this is that we're going to have to stop talking about budget reform. We're going to have to totally embrace it. It's an absolute necessity.” Still, when asked what measures he would take to balance the budget or when it might happen, he did not answer, and as a member of the generation that will have to pay China’s bill, that really bothers me.