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Barack Obama is expected to make deficit reduction a key theme in this week’s State of the Union address. This will come on the heels of a year of unprecedented government spending in which the federal government’s deficit reached a record $1.4 trillion.

While doing some reading for a course I’m taking on the international political economy, I came across some historical figures on the U.S. national debt that jumped out at me:

At the end of 1981, the U.S. was a net world creditor to the tune of $141 billion. By the end of 1987, the U.S. was the world’s biggest debtor nation – with debt totaling $400 billion.

Seeking more context for this, I went to the Concord Coalition website (Concord Coalition is a non-partisan organization that promotes fiscal responsibility and debt reduction) and found this graph

This graph shows that after a World War II spike, American debt decreased and remained relatively flat until 1980 when it ballooned. The only period it decreased after 1980 was during the last years of the Clinton presidency. Shortly after 2000, George Bush’s tax cuts and corresponding spending increases on defense put an end to this downward trend.

It is true that President Obama presided over a year of unprecedented government spending, resulting in record increases in the deficit. But, it is also true that it was Dick Cheney who asserted that, “Deficits don’t matter.”

It seems clear, then, that deficits were produced in a bipartisan way, and must be dealt with in the same manner. Reasonable people from both parties should show some honesty and maturity and come together around practical solutions.

Unfortunately, I have little faith that this will happen. Instead, the poisonous effect of the mid-term election year will probably lead Republicans to do everything they can to paint Democrats, particularly President Obama, as big spending deficit producers, while acknowledging no shared responsibility for the situation. In response, Democrats will be understandably motivated to spend energy looking backwards to challenge the Republican myth, thus reducing the space available to work across party lines to solve the problem.

As usual, it will be a year of posturing, blaming, and credit-seeking. And in the midst, public polarization will deepen and real problems will grow.

I could be wrong. I hope so. Let’s wait and see.


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