If it's minor, if it's petty, if it's nothing at all to worry about, President Barack Obama is concerned, focused and ready to speak out loud and clear, as on the question of Mitt Romney's tax returns. We've got to have them, going way back and then some, for how, after all, is the nation otherwise going to survive?
The Obama campaign has treated this issue as if it is bigger than just about anything else out there, and the president himself said in a press conference that the hullabaloo was perfectly legit even as he dodges and weaves on something that some of us think maybe matters more: his plans to address the debt.
Obama worked mightily to get us in this $16 trillion fix, producing record trillion-dollar deficits year after year, and now is working just as mightily to avoid specificity on the issue. About the closest he has come to moving beyond vague generalities is his plan to allow the expiration of a Bush tax cut on people making over $250,000 annually.
That recovery-defeating move would provide roughly enough money to cover 20 days of our borrowing averaged over a year.
Given up on spending cuts
Meanwhile, he has given up negotiating with anyone much and has seemed more interested in spending more than spending less, which is to say goodbye economy, goodbye America. Everyone who knows anything knows we have to do something about the debt. Here are some of those I mean when I say everybody:
The bipartisan Congressional Budget Office. The CBO has observed that the publicly held portion of the debt is the highest since World War II and says inaction will lower economic production and increase the likelihood of fiscal crisis. The CBO also has looked at the Obama 2013 budget spelling out ideas for the next decade and concluded it would prompt trillions more in deficits over the current formula.
Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. He has told Congress that if we keep on borrowing at the current rate, there will be less private investment, less economic output, lower incomes and reduced standards of living.
If the government does not begin to rectify things, watch out for "financial turmoil," he said, forecasting a vicious circle in which debt grows ever higher and solutions get harder and harder to come by.
Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart, professors at Harvard University and co-authors of "This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly." Here are two of the world's foremost experts on debt, and here is one thing they say: When gross national debt is over 90 percent, GDP growth is going to shrink. Our gross debt (both money owed to the public and by the government to itself) is now over 100 percent of GDP. Our economic growth in the second quarter of this year was 1.5 percent, compared to an average since World War II of 3.3 percent. Low growth equals low everything else, including low employment.
Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, and retired Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. They were co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform established by Obama. Bowles says that without tax reform and dramatic spending cuts, "we face the most predictable crisis in the country's history." Simpson, while also criticizing Republicans, says Obama needs to get serious about whittling down entitlements, his "sacred cow."
The great tragedy is that Obama walked away from the Bowles-Simpson compromise on debt, a workable plan that required both Democrats and Republicans to relinquish something they held dear. Here was a chance for bravery, for leadership, for Obama to do something for his country instead of just himself, and he said no thank you.
He could still sign on, as a matter of fact, but I guess he is too worried about Romney's tax returns.