President Obama's sweep of college campuses this week to re-energize his 2008 supporters is either a brilliant strategy or a risky miscalculation.
It is a brilliant strategy if he can miraculously motivate thousands of young supporters to re-engage with fervor to help re-elect the incumbent Democrats who supported his groundbreaking initiatives on health care, financial reform and the various stimulus packages. Students and older siblings may have been direct beneficiaries of the largesse from the tax cuts in the stimulus, cash for clunkers, the first time homebuyer credit or even the extension of health care to dependents to age 26. President Obama promised and delivered on many major changes and along the way picked up a Nobel Prize and a new respect abroad for America.
But a youth-oriented strategy is risky if this generation of students looks beyond the horizon of a few years. Today's college students face a huge future burden: not only do they have concerns about their ability to obtain jobs and pay off the debt they incurred to attend college, but they must also collectively shoulder a breathtaking debt that today's elected officials voted to impose on them.
For just one year, 2009, the annual federal budget deficit grew to $1.4 trillion. That is close to $400 per month per citizen simply to pay off the 2009 deficit. When you add this to our nation's pre-existing debt of more than $5 trillion and add in the Obama administration budget projections of another $5 trillion in debt over the next 10 years, you see a truly horrifying and unsustainable situation. And sadly, these future projections assume the best possible world: a rosy scenario where we get out of Afghanistan and Iraq, no states are rescued from bankruptcy, no natural disasters occur, and the economy grows.
Today's students are the first American generation to face a future where their standard of living and American economic health are likely to be lower than what their parents faced upon graduation. We are not simply in a recession; we face a long-term scenario of tough economic sledding due to unsustainably high deficits. The fact is that American students' future is one where other countries are surging ahead through careful and strategic policies focusing on economic growth, while American policies favor the here and now.
The United States has hindered job creators while other countries favor them. The United States has the second highest corporate taxes in the developed world. We stress American job-creating businesses with not only high taxes but also countless rules and a voracious trial bar taking a large slice of corporate profits. The United States is becoming protectionist while other nations are expanding their international trade partners.
Compare us to other countries. China and South Korea are surging ahead as trade is encouraged and job-creating businesses are favored. England not only discourages litigation through a loser-pays system but also has a strategy (that is, radical cuts in government spending and selective higher taxes) to cut its deficit.
Our strategy has been one to favor "greedy geezers." We have a Social Security and government pension system that was designed when Americans lived only a few years between retirement and death. Today, a 52-year-old can retire and live to his late 80s. We have a health care system burdened by litigation, and incentivized to run tests and give treatments to terminally ill patients simply to sustain a comatose life by a few weeks.
We have politicians who are not allowed to talk about painful choices and trade offs in spending by government. Even in this election cycle, not even Republicans have suggested cutting any specific programs, and when one brave Congressman (Rep. Paul Ryan) suggested minor changes to Social Security he faced an onslaught of attack from the unions up to President Obama himself.
We have failed as adults. We have not confronted tough decisions on allocating resources. We have acted as if we can have it all.
We have borrowed from our children. We have not sacrificed as our parents and their parents did to help us secure a better life.
Instead we lived for today and made sure every disadvantaged group in American society was lifted through government spending that we pay for by borrowing from our children. So as we play today - our children pay tomorrow.
Despite this inter-generational theft, our college students are complacent and instead believe in the promised world that does not involve tough decisions and trade-offs. For the 2008 election they happily chose over the old guy who promised no tax increases and no spending cuts the alternative choice: the charismatic, inspiring young man who promised everything with no increase in taxes on any household making less than $250,000 annually. Well, the young guy, bolstered by a Democratic Congress, is delivering on his promise. And the spending today will be paid by the kids tomorrow.
Every major political revolution has been energized and inspired by youth. My generation challenged its government on the Vietnam War. The Reagan revolution came from college campuses, and even President Obama's landslide was bolstered by a lopsided youth vote.
But American youth have disengaged, and it is a good strategy to try to re-engage them. Perhaps they are discouraged by the Washington politics as usual. Perhaps they realize President Obama has delivered what he promised, but they are starting to realize that they will bear the cost of these promised changes. Perhaps they are too stressed out with their own personal challenges as they move toward graduation. Perhaps they simply don't understand the basic math involved in the big numbers of budgets, debts and the obligation to pay back.
In any case, President Obama is smart to go after their votes. But until and unless either party lays out a future where our children don't pay for our economic sins, then the younger generation does not have many candidates to support.
The next movement in 2012 may be a youth-inspired movement and one that will challenge the politics as usual in Washington.