YOUNG: Choosing the way out

Americans offered two very different paths

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Deficits and anemic growth attest: America has never paid so much for so little return. Despite one set of facts, there are two different views of how we got here. The two campaigns in this presidential election have presented two different explanations of the past four years. If it sounds as if the candidates are talking past each other, it’s because they are.

Over the past four years, America has endured the highest federal spending, deficits and debt in its peacetime history. In return, it has received the worst peacetime economy since the Depression.

How bad has it been?

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that this year, federal spending will equal 22.9 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Each of the previous two years, it was 24.1 percent. In 2009, it was 25.2 percent, the single highest level since 1943-45. Over the past four years, it has averaged 24.1 percent. Since 1946, peacetime federal spending had never once reached that level.

What have we gotten in return for this unprecedented government spending? The worst four-year economy in our peacetime history. This year, CBO estimates economic growth at just 2.1 percent. Last year, it grew just 1.8 percent, and the year before, just 2.4 percent. In 2009? It shrank 3.1 percent.

Added together, the past four years’ real GDP growth is just 3.2 percent — about what a good annual growth rate would be. Telling is the government’s recent third-quarter GDP growth estimate of 2 percent. As anemic as this is acknowledged universally to be, it virtually matches the 2.1 percent average annual real GDP growth of the past three years. If 2009’s minus 2.4 percent growth rate is included, the four-year average falls to just 0.8 percent.

If there is one thing both presidential campaigns can agree upon, it’s this: Under no circumstances can the past four years’ economic and fiscal failings be repeated. Yet there agreement ends.

In response to the single set of dismal economic and budget facts, the campaigns have asked America two very different questions about them. The Democrats have asked: Who is responsible? The Republicans have asked: Who can fix it?

Just as the campaigns have asked different questions about the past four years, they have prompted Americans to answer them differently as well.

Democrats want voters to reach the conclusion that a president who has been out of office almost four years has had greater influence over this period than the man who has been in office. About half the nation appears to agree.

Republicans want Americans to reach the conclusion that the president who has not fixed the economy or the budget over the past four years is not going to prove able to do so over the next four years, either. About half the nation appears to agree.

If this election has sounded particularly discordant, it is because the two campaigns are deliberately talking past each other. The reason is that they are looking in very different directions in order to reach two very different groups of voters.

As the Obama campaign’s question and proposed answer show, its vision is backward-looking. It wants voters to assign responsibility for the current economy and federal budget to President George W. Bush. It wants voters to believe Mitt Romney would take America back to Mr. Bush’s policies.

As the Romney campaign’s question and proposed answer show, its vision is forward-looking. It wants voters to assign responsibility for the current economy and federal budget to President Obama. It wants voters to believe Mr. Obama cannot take the nation further than he already has.

The campaigns’ divergent approaches reflect America’s viewpoint split. People see the same set of abysmal facts from the past four years but reach very different conclusions about their creation and solution. If there is one certainty for Nov. 6, it is that this split will not be closed.

America has not had a unanimous presidential choice since George Washington. Not only will 2012 not produce another one, it may find America further from unity over a presidential choice than at any time in our collective memory.

This election will not resolve America’s divergence in vision, which these two campaigns have reflected so clearly. The most we can hope for is that the election’s winner can resolve our economic problems. Right now, it appears we as a nation can agree on only one thing: America cannot afford four more years of economic failure.

J.T. Young served in the Treasury Department, the Office of Management and Budget and as a congressional staff member.

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