It's tempting to think that if we just elect the right people next week, the clouds will part, the sun will break through and everything will be fine again. But it's not that simple. Whoever is president the next four years will face daunting problems. We've dug some big holes for ourselves.
For starters, the federal debt can't be ignored much longer. It has now surpassed the level of our total GDP, a truly Greek "accomplishment”. It’s the result of feckless leadership and a feeble economy that can't come close to satisfying the demands of the modern welfare state. But, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, we're running out of other people's money to spend. Like families, businesses and governments that overspend and get in trouble, we're going to have to go through an uncomfortable work-out of our debt.
But here's where it gets tricky. The most effective way to generate more government revenue is through economic growth. Yet the usual austerity measures employed to reduce debt – spending cuts and especially tax increases – work against expansion. The next president will have to inspire confidence in both consumers and businesses, while reducing the foreboding cloud of uncertainty hanging over the economy. Getting the regulatory bureaucracy off the backs of producers would help, as would embracing the new opportunities for inexpensive, plentiful energy production.
But right out of the box, before the next presidential term even begins, trouble looms. It's the "fiscal cliff" which is the result of the last effort by Washington to kick the can down the road. As Americans are finding out to their dismay, this is a toxic brew of tax increases (which all sides agree would be calamitous in a stagnant economy) and spending cuts. It’s an early test of our resolve to be more responsible.
Obamacare is another potential landmine coming up. Remember that it was designed so that the more unpopular parts, like paying for it, wouldn't kick in until after this election. (Clever, no?). But now we're here, facing huge Medicare cuts and escalating healthcare costs for businesses, families and taxpayers. Thirty million people are scheduled to be added to the medical insurance rolls in 2014 while no provisions have been made to address the 40,000 doctor shortage we already have.
The adults in the room also have to address the looming pension crisis. Neither Social Security, state and local governments, businesses nor unions have set aside enough money to fulfill their commitments to retirees. Baby boomers by the millions are careening toward retirement with little in the bank for them. Congressmen from Illinois and California are already pressing for federal relief for state governments that were eager to make extravagant pension promises but not to pay for them.
Other post-election deferrals include the defense contractor layoffs that Obama demanded be delayed and a boatload of onerous EPA regulations teed up to go into effect later. Meanwhile, serious cost cutters have to deal with food stamps, Social Security disability and unemployment rolls bloated by recent growth.
Moreover, America's security around the world needs to be shored up. "Peace through apology and accommodation" hasn’t done such a hot job of replacing "peace through strength". Now rogue states move ever closer to nuclear capability while we dither on developing missile defenses and Vladimir Putin awaits our president's promise to become even more flexible after the election.
The Arab Spring has consisted mostly of friendly autocrats being replaced by Islamist tyrants. We telegraph our decisions to end wars by a politically determined date, rather than when the mission is accomplished. Unbelievable.
The last few years have been rough for Americans. Although our problems aren't exclusively Obama's fault, this is what you get when you select an undistinguished community organizer/politician with no record of accomplishment or relevant experience to be the most powerful person on the planet. Instead of learning from his mistakes, he advocates staying the course.
The next president can make a huge difference if his head and heart are in the right place. But we need to be realistic about the mistakes that have been made and the sacrifices required to get back on track. Americans have pulled together before when the chips were down. We can do it again.