Focusing on our ballooning national debt was a common conservative trope during the Obama era, and for good reason. On the 2008 campaign trail, candidate Obama blasted President George W. Bush as "irresponsible" and "unpatriotic" for significantly deepening America's pool of red ink: "[Bush] added $4 trillion by his lonesome, so that we now have over $9 trillion of debt that we are going to have to pay back...That’s irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic," he inveighed. Bush's spending was irresponsible, though his effort at reigning in entitlements with a Social Security reform proposal -- demagogued and killed by Democrats -- was laudable.
By the time Obama took office in January 2009, the national debt stood at $10.6 trillion. On the day he left office in 2017, it had exploded to $19.9 trillion -- nearly doubling overall, with the outgoing president roughly doubling his predecessor's eight-year debt accrual figure. America's 44th president presided over more gross public debt accrual than the first 42 presidents combined. Obama and his party blindly insist that the US government does not have an over-spending problem, but the math eviscerates that anti-empiricism and denials. During the 2016 campaign, candidate Trump routinely cited the federal government's disastrous balance sheets as an indictment of the man he wished to replace, sometimes making ludicrously implausible promises about eliminating the debt in short order. Here is his last September, for instance (step ahead to the eleven-minute mark):
The problem, many conservatives argued, is that Trump was fulminating about the debt while simultaneously pledging not to touch Medicare or Social Security -- unsustainable, debt-expanding behemoths that are on a fast track to insolvency. These two entitlement programs currently hold a combined "unfunded liability" of tens of trillions, dwarfing the official national debt. This means that Uncle Sam has made tens of trillions in unpaid-for promises to future retirees. Paul Ryan worked diligently to try to address this problem, running into an inevitable buzzsaw of liberal demonization. Trump determined that continuing the Big Fiscal Lie would be better politics than grappling with reality, effectively guaranteeing that neither political party would be remotely serious about working to proactively stave off an utterly predictable debt crisis:
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are so large and growing that they are on track to overwhelm the federal budget. These major entitlement programs, together with interest on the debt, are driving 85 percent of the projected growth in government spending over the next decade. The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, further adds to the problem, increasing entitlement spending by nearly $2 trillion in just 10 years. The long-term unfunded obligations in the nation's major entitlement programs loom like an even darker cloud over the U.S. economy. Demographic and economic factors will combine to drive spending in Medicare, Medicaid (including Obamacare), and Social Security to unsustainable heights. The major entitlements and interest on the debt are on track to devour all tax revenues in fewer than 20 years.
So here we are, eight months into the Trump presidency, with the national debt ticking well past $20 trillion. Annual deficits are creeping higher again, too: In Obama's final year in office, the federal government spent $587 billion more than it took in, and despite being on pace to extract record tax revenues from the American people, a $559 billion deficit is projected for 2017 (let's spend $3.2 trillion
more per year, liberals exclaim). Especially frightening is a lesson we're learning throughout the GOP's Obamacare replacement fiasco: Slightly rolling back or modestly curtailing any major entitlement spending program is close to impossible -- no matter how deeply flawed or fiscally unsustainable the policy may be.
Regardless, conservatives who screamed about the national debt as Obama recklessly expanded it (and vilified those who raised the alarm with proactive solutions, while offering none of his own) should still be pounding away at the issue, more than ever. Basic economics and simple arithmetic tell us that this speeding train is headed off a cliff, but Washington seems unwilling to, or incapable of, doing anything about it. Is anyone even pretending to care anymore? I'll leave you with this short video from Reason explaining why, yes, the national debt is an active and compounding problem:
By the way, one argument I frequently see from defenders of the status quo is that giant programs like Medicare and Social Security should not be called "entitlements" because beneficiaries have paid into them over the course of their lifetimes. While that's true to some extent, most recipients draw more in benefits than they ever paid in -- and young people are also being forced to pay into a system that will have collapsed by the time its their turn to collect on their mandatory "investments." Call it whatever you want; it's indefensible.