President Obama's Inaugural address has been described as the defining statement of a confident leader who, unrestrained by the prospects of another election, will now take the nation away from "the triangulation of Clinton and the centralism of Carter" into a 21st century era of big government that will surpass anything Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson achieved. Democrats hailed it as "liberating" and Republicans denounced it as "frightening."
A more precise term would be "unrealistic."
We are an aging nation in which the birth rate is going down while life expectancy is going up. In 2000, when George W. Bush was elected, there were 45 million Americans drawing Social Security. By 2025, that number will be 79 million. The number of seniors on Medicare and Medicaid is even greater and growing faster. Under these three programs, a massive wealth transfer is taking place, shifting funds from workers to retirees even as workers are shrinking and retirees growing as relative percentages of the population as a whole.
The costs of these programs in 2012, when we were fighting a war in Afghanistan, were $762 billion for Social Security and $720 billion for Medicare and Medicaid. (Compared to $651 billion for Defense.) These will continue to go up while the ratio between workers and retirees will continue to decline. Unless structural changes are made on the payment side, the programs cannot survive, because the gap cannot be closed just by increasing taxes on workers.
At several points in his first term, President Obama acknowledged this truth. However, in his Inaugural, he ignored it and instead sounded a clarion call in support of the status quo. That's unrealistic, and will delay the time when the nation will face the difficult challenges of its demographic trends.
He was equally unrealistic with respect to climate change. Instead of talking about its cultural, economic and political impacts, the president vastly oversimplified the problem, telling us that now, under his leadership, Americans can finally solve it.
No we can't. It is a worldwide problem, and we are a decreasingly smaller part of it. American emissions have been reduced to 1992 levels, an astounding achievement considering the tens of millions of new residents added to our population since then. We are no longer the largest national source of greenhouse emissions, at 25 percent: we are now behind China, in second place, at 19 percent. That trend will continue regardless of what the president may or may not do because we are rich enough to afford the technology available to accomplish it, but developing countries are not.
Billions of people still live on less than $2 a day in the nations where the biggest increases in emissions are coming from, including China and India. World energy needs will increase by more than 40 percent in the next 20 years, a demand that cannot be met without some continued use of fossil fuels. Poor countries will not adopt policies that perpetuate poverty within their boundaries just because our president gives a speech.
Even if this were not true, and all emissions stopped tomorrow, the impact of the buildup of greenhouse gases that began over a half century ago would still be with us for many decades. A realistic speech on the state of the climate would have included a discussion of adaptation.
After an electoral battering in 2010 and a tough campaign in 2012, it is understandable that the president would find great personal satisfaction in a speech claiming vindication for his views. One with more realism and less triumphalism would have been more appropriate for the occasion and given greater satisfaction to the country.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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