When President Trump takes the podium on January 29 to address the state of the union before Congress, the justices of the Supreme Court, his cabinet secretaries, and a national television audience, the national debt will be surging to a once unfathomable $22 trillion.
Washington, DC is currently in a heightened state of partisan warfare over a very partial government shutdown. The nub of the dispute involves about $5 billion the president proposes to spend on border security. Without a congressional green light to finance portions of “the wall” (or analogous barriers), Trump will not sign off on the roughly 25 percent of the annual budget that is not already funded.
Remarkably, the fact that we cannot pay for any of this doesn’t factor into the debate. We are fighting over a drizzle while a monsoon rages and a tidal wave is on the horizon.
The president has cultivated the image of himself as a disruptor, and there is no question that his norm-free stewardship has made it possible to confront some of the more absurd injunctions of bipartisan Beltway dogma—such as those against addressing border security, the underlying causes of international terrorism, the stifling regulatory churn of the administrative state, and so on. But on the looming debt crisis, the president has been strictly Swamp, refusing to deal with the Baby Boom metastasis of entitlements. The Manhattan Institute’s Brian Riedl has run the numbers and they are frightening: $82 trillion in deficit spending to finance the retirement of 74 million Americans over the next 30 years.
Washington has its head in the sand, which is when Mr. Trump is usually at his disruptive best. But the debt problem has to be addressed directly. There must be a better answer than to once again suspend the debt ceiling. The ceiling, noticed only in the rearview mirror, is a reminder of the political class’s inability to make rational spending choices. Unless the president holds Congress accountable, the suspension is sure to be quietly be renewed in March.
No doubt, the politics of controlling Social Security and Medicare spending are dicey. They can, however, play to the president’s strengths. Riedl aptly describes the crushing costs to be imposed on Generation X and Millennials as “the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in world history.” Trump, the populist disrupter, is well suited to frame the matter in those terms. The solution, after all, involves adjusting a system that pays out more than beneficiaries pay in. Struggling young people, trying to finance their education or start a family, are made to subsidize older people who are, as a class, more economically secure.
The president has vowed to protect entitlement programs. He’s never going to accept that they are unsustainable. But if they are to be preserved, the retirement age must be gradually increased, beneficiaries should be means-testing, and the programs ought to be restructured so that beneficiaries expect a reasonable correlation between what they’ve put in and what they ultimately receive. Trump should do the hard work of convincing his base, including Americans struggling in the new economy, that for their children’s sake, they must address the debt challenge. After all, the primary burden of addressing it will be borne by people who are doing economically well. If nothing is done, entitlement spending will crowd out all other spending—all of the government’s essential functions upon which our security and prosperity depend.
Of course, there are other issues. In the current political environment, the president must marshal the substantial steps his administration has taken to curb and sanction Russian aggression. He should highlight how the cashiering of the ill-conceived Iran nuclear deal and reinstatement of sanctions is punishing the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. He should explain how nixing the ruinously unworkable Paris Climate Accord has not stopped America’s ingenuity in dealing with climate concerns. He should outline the steps he is taking, domestically and in conjunction with allies, to answer China’s hegemonic ambitions. His boasts about the success of the campaign against ISIS’s caliphate should be conveyed with clear-eyed understanding that jihadist militancy and sharia supremacism have not been defeated and remain an imminent threat. And he should encourage Congress to use its power over the jurisdiction of federal courts to stop district judges from issuing nationwide injunctions and usurping the political branches’ authority to make policy.
State of the union addresses tend to be quickly forgotten grab-bags, stuffed with exaggerated accomplishment and aspiration. The president, confronted by a Resistance invigorated by its Election Day capture of the House and thoughts of impeachment dancing in its head, would do well to break the mold.