Why Monday could be a turning point in Obama’s presidency

Gretchen Hamel Executive Director, Public Notice
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Pivotal moments for a presidency rarely happen on a schedule: acts of terrorism, natural disasters, and sudden financial crises are usually the kind of events that intervene to dominate a political era. Yet, Monday’s release of the president’s new budget could end up being one of those moments that set a new course for our nation’s fiscal and economic future.

On Monday, Americans will learn if the president is serious about cutting government spending and getting this country back on a fiscally sound footing. The president has expressed the urgent need for such cuts to take place, warning of dire consequences if we continue to dig ourselves into an even deeper mountain of debt.

During the State of the Union, he said: “We have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.”

Those are welcome words. It’s critical for the president to be out front in building an understanding of the need for the government to make tough choices and make cuts to our currently bloated government. Unfortunately, however, in his State of the Union, the president suggested that he would take one step forward and two steps back. While promising to cut spending, the president also introduced billions in new spending proposals. Even if he intends to use budget cuts to fund these new programs, that’s just not good enough.

Leaders in Washington need to look for places to cut, and then go back and look for more places to cut. There should be no shifting of resources to new programs; cuts should reduce the current level of government spending. There can be no sacred cows. From the Department of Defense to the Department of Health and Human Services, every item in the federal budget should be scrutinized.

Reforms to entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, have to be on the table. As the baby boomer generation retires, the amount we spend on entitlement programs will increase by the day, consuming an ever-larger share of the federal budget. Fixing the entitlement crisis will require sacrifices by both right and left, and younger generations. But not addressing or solving the problem today will only require far tougher choices and cuts in the future.

The American people have made it clear that they want and expect the president and new Congress to work together to cut spending and get our country back on a sound fiscal course. The public consistently lists runaway deficits as among their top concerns and cutting spending as a top priority.

Politicians of all ideological stripes now regularly talk about the need to cut spending, but Americans know that they need to look at their representatives’ actions and specific proposals instead of listening to careful recitations of talking points. Numbers on a page — like we will have on Monday with the release of the budget — provide a picture clearer than can be painted by any speech. Does the president’s budget merely trim politically unpopular programs while allowing government to continue on its current path of massive debt accumulation? Or is it a serious and sober attempt to begin to roll back government to a size that will allow our private sector to thrive again?

While Monday’s budget is a critical moment in the debate about our country’s fiscal future, and will show the public if the White House is serious about fiscal discipline, the president’s budget is also just a beginning.

Ultimately, it’s Congress that is responsible for passing a budget and deciding how much our government will spend. The president’s budget is a starting point. If it makes significant reductions in spending, Congress should embrace those cuts and then look for more. If his budget merely locks in our current bloated level of government, then Congress will have to take up the cause of cutting spending on its own.

Americans everywhere recognize that time is running out to right our fiscal ship. Let’s hope our elected representatives recognize this and the urgency of acting on it. Starting now.

Gretchen Hamel is the executive director of Public Notice, a new independent, bipartisan, non-profit organization dedicated to providing facts and insights on the effect public policy has on Americans’ financial well-being. For more information, please visit www.thepublicnotice.org.