President Barack Obama seems to be in denial about his nation’s looming debt crisis. In what was billed as a major policy speech yesterday, he volunteered few concrete solutions to bring down the record deficits that are projected for the decade ahead. Instead, he rejected most of the Republicans’ proposals to rein in mounting entitlement spending, suggesting that the rich shoulder a greater part of the burden.
The fiscal challenges are very real. This January, the Congressional Budget Office warned that it could take many years for the country to regain pre-recession growth rates. Unless significant spending reductions are enacted, federal deficits could average 6 percent of GDP between 2012 and 2021. By the end of the decade, the national debt would equal 100 percent of the total economy.
The main drivers of this debt explosion are public health-care support and retirement programs. By 2021, more than half of federal spending would have to be allocated to Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Along with defense, interest payments and unemployment insurance, it would be nigh impossible for the federal government to continue to finance education and other domestic programs unless taxes are raised substantially.
The president laid out about a trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade in his 2012 budget but refused to adopt any of the major findings of his own fiscal commission. He proposed to install yet another commission on Wednesday and urged bipartisan compromise to save the nation’s entitlement programs. But he ruled out structural reform.
Republicans have proposed to turn Medicare into a “premium support” program that would allow retirees to purchase health insurance and care on the free market while subsidizing those who can’t afford it. According to the president that would effectively turn Medicare into “a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry.”
The president proposed across the board cuts to the program instead and promised to “strengthen” the unelected Independent Payment Advisory Board that was created under his health-care reform law last year. He expects this could save $100 billion in Medicare spending over the next ten years, presumably by more carefully selecting which medicine and procedures are covered under the program.
The CBO has projected that Medicare spending will increase by more than $300 billion during the same period.
The president acknowledged that Medicaid, which supports health care for the poor, is a crippling financial burden to both the federal government and the states but he would not endorse the Republican proposal which is to give the states the power they need to reduce spending.
The CBO estimates that government spending on Medicaid will have doubled by the end of this decade, effectively bankrupting the program.
On Social Security, the president reiterated Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who said in January that the pension program was “not in crisis.”
Social Security may not be responsible for today’s high deficit but spending is projected to skyrocket, toppling $1 trillion in 2018. The president’s fiscal commission proposed raising the retirement age by one month every two years after it reaches 67 under current law. Such a measure would achieve nearly $4 trillion in deficit reduction through 2020 — close to the total amount of spending cuts Obama said to favor in Wednesday’s speech. Under the commission’s plan, the pension age would reach 68 around 2050 and 69 by 2075.
Rather than proposing serious entitlement reforms that could save the nation from financial catastrophe, the president called for “shared sacrifice” and rejected the notion of reducing corporate and top income tax rates as Republicans would have it. “They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs,” he claimed. “That’s not right.”
By closing loopholes and making the individual tax code “fairer and simpler,” Obama hopes to reduce tax expenditures. The largest “reform” however would be to raise taxes on high-income earners by reversing tax cuts enacted during the Bush Administration and extended last December.