Sen. Mark Warner, a centrist Democrat from Virginia, said Monday that he will be looking for more than just a focus on growth and innovation in President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
“What I hope he says – and I think this will make some folks on my side upset – even if he has an innovation and growth agenda … just growth alone isn’t going to get us out of this problem,” Warner said in an interview, referring to the nation’s looming deficits and debt.
“We’re going to have to take on the size and role of government,” the first-term senator said, adding that “it’s the stuff that’s popular” like entitlement and defense spending that are the biggest drivers of the federal government’s unfunded spending.
The argument that the U.S. cannot grow its way out of the fiscal hole it is in – a $14 trillion national debt, annual deficits that have run over $1 trillion for three straight years, and health care entitlements under increasing stress from rising costs and the shift of baby boomers into retirement age – is not a new one.
Conservatives generally are quick to also point out that the nation cannot tax its way out of the problem, just as liberals say the government cannot solve it simply by cutting spending.
But in the context of Obama’s speech – which has been previewed by the White House as focusing on the need to continue investing in key areas of the economy such as education and infrastructure – Warner’s comments represented a break of sorts from party solidarity.
The former governor of Virginia was also willing to publicly embrace the need for spending cuts now, with no delay. Most Democrats are cautioning against cutting too much, saying that reduced government spending will hurt the economic recovery.
“You’ve got to earn good faith by showing willingness to do spending cuts,” Warner said, with an eye toward the bond market, where creditors of the U.S. are increasingly anxious about the government’s ability to honor its obligations. “There is some value in short term cuts that will at least show that we’re serious about doing something.”
“Too much draconian cutting right now, with the economy teetering right where it is, I understand why the White House is a little bit cautious,” Warner said. “But you’ve got to show that you can walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Republicans say government spending is a chief cause of the continued economic malaise, and public capital crowds out private capital in the market, stifling competition.
The Virginia Democrat said that even if Obama does not get specific on how to fix long term imbalances — recommending politically toxic things like restructuring entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — he should spend much of his hour-long speech educating Congress and the public about the reality of the fiscal situation facing them.
“The American people desperately want to see deficit reduction but then they don’t want to take any of the medicine we require,” he said. “The American people will follow. You’ve got to sell the problem first before the solution.”
Obama’s biggest challenge, Warner said, will be to strike a balance between inspiring the country with optimism and confronting Americans with the situation they are faced with.
“This is a fairly sobering exposition when you kind of lay out all these numbers, you get bummed out pretty quick,” Warner said. “So the idea is, a tight wire the president has to walk to give that aspirational hope that the country is coming through this, that [also] lays out the extent of our problem.”
“It’s a hard challenge. I feel empathy for him.”