A February poll conducted by the Peterson Foundation found that the nation’s fiscal confidence remains solidly negative, a result of “unaddressed long-term fiscal challenges [that] remain a serious concern for Americans.” Indeed, a whopping 82 percent of American voters believe that the President and Congress should devote more time to addressing the national debt.
This should come as no surprise. Congress voted to increase spending with the trillion-dollar Omnibus and enacted a “suspension” of the debt limit, handing the executive branch a blank check for further borrowing. In another blow, President Obama appears to have stepped back from entitlement reform and will advocate for higher discretionary spending levels in his 2015 budget proposal.
None of this bodes well for the nation’s fiscal health, which a strong majority of voters (61 percent) believe is deteriorating. Indeed, each American’s share of the public debt now stands at $39,500 per person. By 2038, without reform, that share will grow to $142,000, tripling in less than 25 years.
Excessive public debt as a share of the economy stifles economic growth, as government borrowing crowds out capital for the private market and leaves taxpayers with a greater future tax burden. Voters’ outlook reflects this grim situation: they are twice as likely to say that America is on the wrong track than to say it is headed in the right direction.
It’s telling that most voters believe the nation’s onerous debt is hurting the economy. Their belief highlights that fiscal responsibility isn’t just an economic imperative—it is a moral one as well. Past generations strove to leave their children and grandchildren with a nation that afforded them more freedom and greater opportunities than before. Saddling the next generation of Americans with an economy plagued by today’s excessive debt will deny them that promise. If the country wants to ensure that future Americans have a better opportunity to succeed than their forebears, lawmakers need to make reforms that may be unpopular today, but will preserve economic freedom and individual opportunity for posterity.
To start, Congress and the President should address out-of-control spending and debt by sticking to the spending caps agreed to in 2011. They should also reinstate a hard debt limit that specifies an upper bound for borrowing, rather than continue a meaningless “suspension” that does nothing to limit debt.
Furthermore, the President should show real leadership on entitlement reform. It’s a promise he made in 2008 and has yet to fulfill. One way to lead would be to push his support for changes to Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments, which he has withdrawn from his forthcoming budget proposal. This change would be a small but symbolically important start to reforming the nation’s entitlement programs. And it would show resolve to take action on fixing America’s spending and debt problem.