The echoing sound of a tin can being repeatedly kicked down the road, most recently with the fiscal cliff and now with the debt ceiling, is beginning to awaken the public to the debt crisis headed our way.
Concern about the federal budget deficit now exceeds that over unemployment, with 1 in 5 Americans calling it “the top problem” facing our country — nearly triple the number recorded six months ago, according to Gallup.
And for good reason. Unsustainable entitlement spending, an inefficient tax code and a sluggish economy contribute to our government borrowing 36 cents for every dollar it spends. The result is a ballooning $16.4 trillion national debt and what some call the most predicable and catastrophic economic crisis in our history.
Unfortunately, in his inaugural address, President Obama fell woefully short of reflecting either the urgency of dealing with our country’s growing debt or of the public’s growing concern about it. Instead, he briefly acknowledged the issue, saying “We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.” But that was it.
The president gave little indication that our structural fiscal imbalance is the largest issue facing the country right now, not to mention a larger barrier to enacting his own policy agenda than even his opposition party. After all, how will Social Security and Medicare continue to “strengthen” our country when they reach insolvency within the next decade or two, respectively?
How can we “harness new ideas” by investing in research or infrastructure when, by 2025, every last penny the money government collects will only be enough to cover our entitlement programs and interest payments on the debt?
How can there be a “rising middle class” when ordinary, hard-working Americans will be hit first and hardest when interest rates rise as creditors demand more for our debt?
Math should not be a partisan prerogative. Truth is, we cannot solve any problem we confront until we put our fiscal house in order.
When President Obama was sworn in for his first term in January 2009, 53% of Americans said reducing the budget deficit should be “a top priority.” By the time the president raised his right hand again this month, that number increased by 19 points to 72%, according to Pew.
Compare that to some other issues President Obama prioritized in his speech: dealing with global warming (28%), improving infrastructure (30%), strengthening gun laws (37%) and dealing with illegal immigration (39%). None come close.
So instead of refocusing his agenda, the president should reclaim the issue of our debt. Not only do the numbers demand it, the public now expects it.
President Obama should take advantage of his next opportunity to lead in his State of the Union speech next month by setting the expectation that he and the Congress will enact a fiscal “grand bargain” by July 4, 2013, along the lines that a bipartisan super-majority on his own fiscal commission suggested. He should summon our common purpose, call for shared sacrifice and identify areas of bipartisan agreement.
Ultimately, as the president said in his inaugural address, “We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity.”
He is right. Fixing the debt in a generationally balanced way is not just an economic imperative, it is a moral duty. Those who stand to lose the most if the status quo persists are young Americans — without whom, the president should remember, he might still be the junior senator from Illinois.
Nick Troiano is a co-founder and National Field Director for The Can Kicks Back – a non-partisan, millennial-driven campaign to fix the national debt and reclaim our future.