Harbus (in our fantasy world) recently sat down with President Barack Obama to discuss his outlook on the presidency and the state of the country.
Harbus: President Obama, thank you for agreeing to join us for a discussion.
Obama: Not a problem, it is my pleasure.
Harbus: Mr. President, can you describe what your Administration is trying to accomplish with the proposed economic stimulus package? Most economists seem to be supportive of some form of economic stimulus, along the lines of what you have proposed. However, there is also widespread concern about the skyrocketing budget deficits, and your economic stimulus package would certainly increase these deficits. How are you thinking about these issues?
Obama: You are correct that our economic stimulus will dramatically increase the budget deficit in the near term. And this is actually by design. We are in the midst of a serious economic recession. Consumers are purchasing less, and businesses are investing and producing less. Left unchecked, this contraction will inevitably lead to more job losses, which in turn would cause even further reductions in consumption. This downward cycle must be reversed before the economy worsens further. Until consumers and businesses are financially secure and confident enough to begin spending again, the government must spend more so that demand is strong enough for businesses to employ workers. And there are other benefits to this heightened level of government spending. We have seen numerous recent examples – New Orleans and Minneapolis among them – of our failure to care for and modernize our infrastructure. There are additional opportunities for us to update the technologies employed in the health care sector and to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency. So, in addition to stimulating demand, our stimulus can accomplish important objectives related to infrastructure and energy efficiency.
Having said all of that, we must also be mindful of our budget deficit situation. Lingering budget deficits, as we know, can be bad. Large lingering budget deficits can increase the cost of borrowing and constrain investment from the private sector. And it is also important for the American taxpayers to understand that we are being wise and fair stewards of their hard-earned money. But this is not the time for us to focus on deficit reduction. Fortunately we may able to finance our deficits cheaply during this global economic downturn, as investors trust U.S. government bonds more than other securities. So this mitigates to some extent the risks of increased private sector borrowing costs as a result of the deficits. It is just vitally important that we stimulate demand in our economy and limit any further job loss that results from the recession. The stakes are incredibly high, and we are acting accordingly.
Harbus: Many in your party are optimistic not only about the success of your presidency, but also about the opportunity for you to form a new political dynasty – arguably just as FDR did in the 1930s for the Democrats and as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s for the Republicans. To what extent has this become one of your goals?
Obama: Well, I have talked at length about my view that we need to redefine both the role of government in society and the way that we conduct our politics in this country. I believe that our government in general must become much more proactive in solving underlying long-term problems – our energy crisis, the squeezing of the middle class, the millions of Americans without health insurance, the sustainability of our entitlement programs, economic competition from China and India. And I have also been quite clear that I am tired of how the business of politics has been done in the United States – the demonizing of our opponents, the influence of special interests, reluctance to ask Americans to sacrifice. So, in one sense, I am optimistic that our Administration will succeed in ushering in a new era in America.
But that vision should not be confused for political party success as an end in itself. For too long, our leaders in Washington have confused success in elections with bettering our nation. I am not concerned about left or right, liberal or conservative. I am only concerned with what works and what is right.
Harbus: What do you have to say to those Americans who did not vote for you? Will there be policies pursued by your Administration that Republicans can get excited about?
Obama: Let me be clear that I intend to be president of all Americans, Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal. Now, I am philosophically a Democrat, and I certainly do not intend to relinquish those ideals and principles. But I also recognize that the Republican Party can be a source of good ideas as well. And my Administration is eager to collaborate with conservatives and Republicans on all issues so that together we can determine the policies that are the most beneficial for all Americans. I also believe that conservatives will be able to find common ground with some of the issues that are important to me. For example, I believe – as many conservatives do – that Medicare and Social Security as we know them today are not sustainable. As the Baby Boomer generation moves into retirement, we will have to change both Medicare and Social Security if we want to maintain some level of fiscal sanity. Many conservatives have been focused on entitlement reform over the past several years, and I look forward to working with them on these issues.
Another issue is education reform – and, more specifically, merit-based teacher pay. Some in my own party do not agree with my belief that we must come up with a system in which our best teachers are rewarded economically for their efforts. Our system as it is today does not do enough to provide teachers with the incentives for excellence. And this has to change for our schools to be the best they can be.
Harbus: Mr. President, thanks again for your insights.
Obama: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.