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Friday, April 12, 2013
In January 1975, President Gerald Ford gave a State of the Union Address to Congress that is remarkable for candor: "Today," he said, "I must say to you that the state of the Union is not good."
Deploring the reality that "millions of Americans are out of work" and that recession was eroding the nation's economy, Ford warned about the spiraling national debt: "This year's federal deficit will be about $30 billion; next year's probably $45 billion. The national debt will rise to over $500 billion."
On Feb. 12, President Obama was optimistic in his State of the Union address to Congress: "Together, we have cleared away the rubble of crisis, and can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger." But, he said, unemployment was high and "too many people still can't find full-time employment." He also lamented that "for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged."
What Obama didn't report was this alarming fact: The national debt had topped $16 trillion and is approaching $17 trillion. Congress must either increase the debt ceiling by July, or the United States will be in default on its obligations.
The George W. Bush and Obama administrations are responsible for the country's current dangerous financial situation. When Bill Clinton left office in 2001, the federal budget had a small surplus. After that, the deficit reached almost $1.3 trillion in 2008, Bush's last year in office. It has remained above the $1 trillion mark every year since.
Is the U.S. economy stronger, as claimed by Obama in February?
n Unemployment. Just 88,000 jobs were added to the workforce in March, fewer than half of the expected number and far below what is required by historical standards to restore the economy after a serious recession. The Labor Department's report on unemployment suggested that millions of workers have simply given up looking for employment.
n Restricting gun sales. After the December Newtown, Conn., killing of 20 schoolchildren and six others, the public was stunned. It appeared possible that Congress would restrict the sale of military-style assault weapons with large ammunition clips. Background checks on all gun purchasers, including those at gun shows, was the minimum measure that was expected to stir opposition by the gun lobby.
Four months later, it is questionable whether Congress will approve any gun control legislation. The National Rifle Association appears to exercise decisive power in Washington on the sale of guns, even background checks. Can we believe the "state of our union is stronger" when Americans want armed guards in schools?
n Compromise on the budget? Obama's fiscal 2014 budget plan suggests he accepts the reality that the economy will not grow fast enough to create the millions of jobs needed until he agrees to cut Medicare and Social Security benefits in exchange for new revenue from congressional Republicans. Many Democrats, who vowed not to vote for any cuts in entitlements, voiced displeasure with Obama's concessions and threatened to oppose him. Republican hardliners said they would oppose any tax increases or cutting tax breaks for favored groups.
Can a bipartisan majority in the House and 61 senators forge a compromise to reduce federal spending and increase revenue? If so, the outlook for compromise on other legislation, immigration reform, for example, may be brighter.
Is this wishful thinking? Not if you assume, as I do, that Obama and congressional Republicans have learned from November's elections that they need each other to pull the country out of its pessimism. Obama needs Speaker John Boehner's help to get a compromise package through the House of Representatives. And House Republicans need to show flexibility if they hope to retain their majority in 2014.
Ford told Congress in 1975 that "some people question their government's ability to make hard decisions and stick with them; they expect Washington politics as usual." We are about to see whether Washington in 2013 is capable of making hard decisions for the benefit of the country. If not, Washington is in for renewed gridlock.
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