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Please, Mr. President, don't tell us we can have it all



Published: Wed, February 2, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Just two weeks ago, President Bush gave his second inaugural address during which he used the word freedom 27 times. Tonight he will give his fifth State of the Union address, and the word Americans should hear from the president -- but almost certainly will not -- is sacrifice.

This is not a president who is given to telling Americans that they should ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. You will not hear George W. Bush tell his citizens that all he has to offer are blood, toil, tears and sweat. Winston Churchill told the British people that not once, but at least six times over two years during World War II.

What we'll hear

President Bush, we're afraid, is poised to once again tell most Americans that they can have it all. This is a nation that can pursue a war in a foreign land, cut taxes, revamp Social Security, expand drug benefits under Medicare and make sure that no child is left behind.

The problem is that the children are being left behind -- left behind to clean up the financial mess that massive budget deficits will create for them when they and their children grow up to be taxpayers.

The official line from the White House is that the president intends to cut by half the federal budget deficit by the end of his term.

The deficit for fiscal 2004, which ended Sept. 30, was $412.3 billion, a record. The administration's most recent estimates foresee a 2005 deficit of $331 billion (Congress says it will be more like $348 billion). And that doesn't include the $80 billion that the administration recently said it will need for the war in Iraq.

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office forecast assumes that the Bush tax cuts will expire as scheduled; making them permanent would add, with interest costs, $2.2 trillion to the national debt over 10 years.

The president will surely talk about his plan to revamp or "save" Social Security by giving Americans the option of diverting a portion of their Social Security taxes into individual stock and bond accounts. But to allow that diversion of money, without raising the payroll tax, will cost as much as $2 trillion in start-up costs over 10 years. All of it, presumably, being added to a debt that is already costing $160 billion a year in interest payments.

Everyone wins

The president has pledged tax reform, perhaps just making earlier cuts permanent (which, as mentioned, would add to the debt) or perhaps something more ambitious. There are those in Congress who would replace the graduated income tax with a flat tax and others who would eliminate the IRS by converting to a national sales tax. Rest assured that we will be told that we will all be better off under whichever new plan is being pushed -- even though logic tells us that we can't all be winners.

Those who are likely to end up making sacrifices won't be asked to do so; they may not even be told it's coming. But tens of thousands of students who rely on Pell grants to finance their college educations will find that the money isn't there next semester. Cities face the loss of development grants. People who rely on subsidized housing will see cuts in Section 8 financing and states will have a harder time meeting their Medicaid costs and will have to cut coverage.

A candid appraisal of the state of the Union would include some of the harsh realities of the demands being placed on the United States and its people. But such candor is unlikely tonight.




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