The Next President Will Step into Deficit Hell
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Knowledge Wharton
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September 18, 2012

To hear the two candidates tell it, the U.S. presidential election offers a dramatic choice on the economy: Vote for me, each says, if you want a robust recovery; pick my opponent, and we'll plunge back into recession.

But regardless of who wins, important economic factors will remain facts of life. Millions of American homeowners are "underwater," owing more than their homes are worth and weakening the consumer demand that is key to the economy. Employers, even if they are flush with money, won't hire more workers until they need them – when demand rises or appears ready to.

The debt crisis in Europe resists a quick solution, and deficits and overhanging debt in the U.S. are too big to be whittled down very fast. These deficits will compete for federal revenue that could stimulate the economy through more spending or cuts in taxes.

Given the size of these problems, what is the most likely economic landscape to emerge after the election if President Barack Obama, a Democrat, wins, or if Republican challenger Mitt Romney wins?

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Three Wharton faculty members say that, either way, the future is likely to look much like the present, for several years at least. "The notion in the political debate is that if you just do something a little bit differently, things will get much better. But it doesn't work like that," says Wharton finance professor Franklin Allen.

"It seems to me that one of the most depressing things about this campaign has been that it's more or less tit-for-tat, gotcha issues that have emerged, rather than any serious talk about what [the candidates] are going to do [regarding] the looming problems with the economy," says Wharton finance professor Richard J. Herring.

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Whoever he is, the next president will face an immediate economic crisis, including the "fiscal cliff," tax increases and deep spending cuts that will kick in automatically unless Congress and the White House can agree on an alternative. The cliff is a result of a standoff in 2011 over raising the debt ceiling. "I think once the election's over, that's going to be the big issue," says Allen.

What if the Democrats, who support tax increases on the wealthy, and the Republicans, who do not, cannot agree, and the automatic provisions kick in? "I think it's quite likely that would lead to recession," Allen states, predicting that tax hikes and cuts in government spending would reduce gross domestic product by about 3 percent.

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While both candidates say their policies would speed job creation, the problems run too deep to be resolved quickly, Allen adds. "It's become a much more serious problem than we have ever had in this country before," he says, arguing that many of today's unemployed will remain so unless they are retrained, a lengthy and expensive process that he says is currently inadequate.

Indeed, according to Allen, the current economic problems are unique in American history. The clearest analogy is Japan, which has been struggling for many years. What's the solution? "I don't think anybody really knows," Allen says.

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Obama proposes a continuation of the policies of his first term, which included efforts to stimulate the economy through federal spending and modest tax reductions focused mainly on people with low and middle-class incomes. He would allow the Bush-era tax cuts to lapse for people earning more than $250,000 a year, but would keep them for people earning less. He would stay the course with his health care overhaul – the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare –and would keep most of the regulations imposed on the financial services industry after the financial crisis.

Romney's most dramatic economic proposal is to reduce tax rates even below the Bush levels in effect today, while making up for the lost revenue by eliminating some unspecified deductions and tax loopholes. Romney wants to repeal parts of Obamacare and many of the financial regulations. He would loosen environmental regulations and, compared to Obama, place heavier emphasis on exploiting coal and oil.