WASHINGTON -- In a federal budget filled with mind-boggling statistics, two numbers stand out as particularly stunning, for the way they may change American politics and American power.
The first is the projected deficit in the coming year, nearly 11 percent of the country's entire economic output. That is not unprecedented: During the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the United States ran soaring deficits, but usually with the expectation that they would come back down once war spending abated.
But the second number, buried deeper in the budget's projections, is the one that really commands attention: By President Barack Obama's own optimistic projections, U.S. deficits will not return to sustainable levels over the next 10 years.
In fact, in 2019 and 2020 -- years after Obama has left the political scene, even if he serves two terms -- they start rising again sharply, to more than 5 percent of gross domestic product. His budget draws a picture of a nation that, like many American homeowners, simply cannot get above water.
For Obama and his successors, the effect of those projections is clear: Unless miraculous growth, or miraculous political compromises, create some unforeseen change over the next decade, there is virtually no room for new domestic initiatives for Obama or his successors. Beyond that lies the possibility that the United States could begin to suffer the same disease that has afflicted Japan over the past decade: As debt grew more rapidly than income, the country's influence around the world eroded.
Or, as Obama's chief economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, used to ask before he entered government a year ago, "How long can the world's biggest borrower remain the world's biggest power?"
Chinese officials, who are lending much of the money to finance the U.S. government's spending, and who asked pointed questions about Obama's budget plans when they visited Washington last summer, say they think the long-term answer to Summers' question is self-evident. The Europeans will also believe that this is a big worry about the next decade.
Obama himself hinted at his own concern when he announced in early December that he planned to send 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan, but insisted that the United States could not afford to stay for long. "Our prosperity provides a foundation for our power," he told cadets at West Point. "It pays for our military. It underwrites our diplomacy. It taps the potential of our people, and allows investment in new industry." And then he explained why even a "war of necessity," as he called Afghanistan last summer, could not last for long. "That's why our troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended," he said then, "because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own."
Obama's budget deserves credit for its candor: It does not sugarcoat, at least excessively, the potential magnitude of the problem. President George W. Bush kept claiming, until near the end of his presidency, that he would leave office with a balanced budget. He never got close; in fact, the deficits soared in his last years.
Obama has published the 10-year numbers in part, it seems, to make the point that the political gridlock of the past few years, in which most Republicans refuse to talk about tax increases and Democrats refuse to talk about cutting entitlement programs, is unsustainable. His prescription is that the problem has to be made worse, with intense deficit spending to lower the unemployment rate, before the deficits can come down.
Summers, in an interview Monday afternoon, said, "The budget recognizes the imperatives of job creation and growth in the short run, and takes significant measures to increase confidence in the medium term." He was referring to the freeze on domestic, non-national-security-related spending, the troubled effort to cut health-care costs, and the decision to let expire Bush-era tax cuts for corporations and families earning more than $250,000.
But Summers said that the long-term projections of deficits were "not sustainable," and that "through the budget and fiscal commission, the president has sought to provide maximum room for making further adjustments as necessary before any kind of crisis arrives."
Turning that thought into political action, however, has proven harder and harder for the Washington establishment. Republicans stayed largely silent about the debt during the Bush years.
Democrats have described it as a necessary evil during the economic crisis that defined Obama's first year. Interest in a long-term solution seems limited. Or, as Isabel V. Sawhill of the Brookings Institution put it on MSNBC on Monday, "The problem here is not honesty, but political will."
One source of that absence of will is that the political warnings are contradicted by the market signals. The Treasury has borrowed money to finance the government's deficits at remarkably low rates, the strongest indicator that the markets believe they will be paid back on time and in full.
THE NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE