President George W. Bush was fond of saying that he would not be around when the real history of his administration was written. Whether that is true in the digital age is unclear. What is clear is that a president who leaves unfinished business to his successor — like a war or two — runs the risk that the history of his presidency may be written much sooner than he thinks, and written by those who were left the task of completing that unfinished business.
You might think President Obama would understand that pretty clearly, but he is making the same mistake. The history of his administration will be written almost immediately and perhaps even is being written now. This is because the president is in the process of bankrupting the nation and leaving it to his successor to sort it all out. As Lawrence H. Summers, one of the architects of his burning building, recently wrote: “The great economic questions for the next generation” will involve how to pay for the exploding costs of government. The president has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of dealing with those questions himself. He will leave it to his successor and to the next generation.
Yet there is no assurance that the next generation will be able to come up with answers to these questions. Mr. Obama plans to leave office with a gross national debt of $20 trillion, about double the debt he inherited from his predecessor. In other words, in eight short years, the president will have burdened the country with about the same amount of debt it accumulated in its entire history. In fact, his policies will leave the country about $25 trillion in debt in the next 10 years. Then it will cost more to service the debt than it costs to pay for a wartime Defense Department today. Where does that leave the next generation?
Somewhere in the country, a child is being born to proud, hopeful and responsible parents. It doesn’t matter what race, creed or gender — the child is an American. Let’s call the child Zoey. Her parents will bring her to a home full of joy and spend lots of time planning for her future. They will set a budget for themselves that will feed, clothe and care for their daughter. They also will plan for her education, and they may set up a 529 account just in case she wants to go to college like her parents. They will budget for that, too. They will do all they can to make the American dream come true for Zoey.
What they do not yet realize is that hundreds of miles away, Washington has other plans for her.
Washington has no budget. It is spending all the money Zoey’s parents send to it and then lots and lots more. Zoey has no idea what is happening to her, but her parents’ elected representatives are borrowing from Zoey and pawning her future. The way they are going, by the time Zoey is old enough to vote in her first presidential election, the country she inherits will be bankrupt, with a debt of $40 trillion or more. The American dream will have become a dark, depressing nightmare.
Zoey and her generation will not be able to afford to pay for the interest on the debt, the cost of her government, the cost of the nation’s security and the enormous cost of the entitlements the “me” generation takes for granted today. Yet under the Constitution that is supposed to guarantee her freedom, she cannot repudiate the debt government handed to her. She will ask why the Constitution, which sets the limits of the government’s powers, did not protect her from having to shoulder a debt she had no say over, from having her future put in hock by the spendthrift politicians in office today.
Zoey, as she gains her social and political consciousness, will set out to write the history of these times and the government that left her this legacy. She will not be able to bring herself to hold her parents accountable for it. Instead, she will hold their politicians accountable. Little Zoey does not know it, but she already is beginning to write the history of this administration and its allies in Congress. It will be a history of irresponsibility and betrayal.
Warren L. Dean Jr. practices law in Washington, D.C., and is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.