President Obama says he wants to tackle the deficit next year. That's great news, because we're spending $1.4 trillion more this year than we're taking in.
More than that, the national debt, which is the accumulation of all our deficits over time, stands at $12 trillion. When you add in unfunded promises to Medicare and Social Security, the long-term debt is around $56 trillion. That figure breaks down to $184,000 per American.
There obviously is reason to worry. But how do we get out of this jam?
It won't happen overnight. But here are five reforms the president and his staff should pursue if the administration wants to reel in the deficit:
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* Fund Afghanistan. Liberal Democrats have an ulterior motive in pressing Obama for a way to pay for the Afghanistan buildup. They want to stop the effort.
I'm not with them on stopping the buildup, but they raise a legitimate point. We need a separate way to finance the war, whether through war bonds, spending cuts or some other changes. President Bush made a mistake in not pushing Congress for a unique revenue stream to finance Iraq. Obama shouldn't make the same call in Afghanistan.
* Lower health costs. Obama should push Capitol Hill to put stronger incentives to lower health costs into the final health bill. For example, make sure doctors will not be exempted from the proposed Medicare Commission's powers to reshape how Medicare reimburses providers.
* Honestly fund a health bill. The president should persuade Senate leaders to rethink funding so much of their bill through unrealistic Medicare reductions. He would have support from a bipartisan group of health experts and organizations like the Concord Coalition, the Progressive Policy Institute, the Brookings Institution and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
* Go with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. They have introduced legislation to create a bipartisan commission to address the costs of Social Security and Medicare. Obama likes the idea of a special commission. Well, here's a real-live bill. The president should put his weight behind it. He will find wind at his back, too. In a recent Peterson Foundation poll, 70 percent of respondents favored a bipartisan fiscal commission over Congress to tackle the deficit and debt.
* Get next year's budget right. Obama's budget-writing team needs to take on a few sacred cows in the fiscal 2011 budget it is now drafting, such as curtailing subsidies to big farmers. No one should expect next year's budget to eliminate the deficit. But it sure can signal the president's intent.
And we all have a stake in him moving from intent to action. Sooner than later, we have to reckon with those huge deficit and debt numbers.