White House projects bigger deficits, bigger debt

Congressional budget analysts project a cumulative $7 trillion U.S. deficit from 2010-2019, a figure roughly $2 trillion less than the one projected by the White House budget office.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, in a report that came out on the same day as the White House midyear budget review, said the deficit this year will total $1.6 trillion and that putting the United States on a sustainable fiscal course will require a mix of lower spending and higher tax revenues than the amounts now projected.

The White House also projected a $1.6 trillion deficit this year, but a gloomier $9 trillion 10-year shortfall.

The federal government faces exploding deficits and mounting debt over the next decade, White House officials predicted Tuesday in a fiscal assessment far bleaker than what the Obama administration had estimated just a few months ago.

Figures released by the White House budget office foresee a cumulative $9 trillion deficit from 2010-2019, $2 trillion more than the administration estimated in May. Moreover, the figures show the public debt doubling by 2019 and reaching three-quarters the size of the entire national economy.

Obama economic adviser Christina Romer predicted unemployment could reach 10% this year and begin a slow decline next year. Still, she said, the average unemployment will be 9.3% in 2009 and 9.8% in 2010.

"This recession was simply worse than the information that we and other forecasters had back in last fall and early this winter," Romer said.

The grim administration projections came on a day of competing economic news. The Congressional Budget Office, which has predicted less economic growth than the White House in the past, was also scheduled to announce revised budget projections on Tuesday.

Obama himself may have drowned out the rising deficit news with the announcement Tuesday that he intends to nominate Ben Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve. The Bernanke news could neutralize any disturbance in the financial markets caused by the high deficit projections.

The deeper red ink and the gloomy unemployment forecast present President Obama with an enormous challenge. The new numbers come as he prods Congress to enact a major overhaul of the health care system — one that could cost $1 trillion or more over 10 years. Obama has said he doesn't want the measure to add to the deficit, but lawmakers have been unable to agree on revenues that cover the cost.

What's more, the high unemployment could last well into the congressional election campaign next year, turning the contests into a referendum on Obama's economic policies.

Republicans were ready to pounce.

"The alarm bells on our nation's fiscal condition have now become a siren," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. "If anyone had any doubts that this burden on future generations is unsustainable, they're gone — spending, borrowing and debt are out of control."

House Budget Committee Ranking Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin issued the following statement: "Today's news confirms what we've all known: Washington's spending binge has made a bad situation even worse – driving deficits to unprecedented levels, and plunging our nation deeper in debt."

The revised estimates project that the economy will contract by 2.8% this year, more than twice what the White House predicted earlier this year. Romer projected that the economy would expand in 2010, but by 2% instead of the 3.2% growth the White House predicted in May. By 2011, Romer estimated, the economy would be humming at 3.6% growth.

Both Romer and budget director Peter Orszag said this year's contraction would have been far worse without money from the $787 billion economic stimulus package that Obama pushed through Congress as one of his first major acts as president.

At the same time, the continuing stresses on the economy have, in effect, increased the size of the stimulus package because the government will have to spend more in unemployment insurance and food stamps, Orszag said. He said the cost of the stimulus package — which spends most of its money in fiscal year 2010 — will grow by tens of billions of dollars above the original $787 billion.

For now, while the country tries to come out of a recession, neither spending cuts nor broad tax increases would be prudent deficit-fighting measures. But Obama is likely to face those choices once the economy shows signs of a steady recovery, and it could test his vow to only raise taxes on individuals making more than $200,000.

Still, 10-year budget projections can be "wildly inaccurate," said Stan Collender, a partner at Qorvis Communications and a former congressional budget official. Collender notes that there will be five congressional elections over the next 10 years and any number of foreign and domestic challenges that will make actual deficit figures very different from the estimates.

The Obama administration did tout one number in its budget review: The 2009 deficit was expected to be $1.58 trillion, $263 billion less than projected in May. That's largely because the White House removed a $250 billion item that it had inserted as a "place holder" in case banks needed another bailout.

Orszag, anticipating backlash over the deficit numbers, conceded that the long-term deficits are "higher than desirable." The annual negative balances amount to about 4% of the gross domestic product, a number that many economists say is unsustainable.

But Orszag also argued that overhauling the health system would reduce health care costs and address the biggest contributor to higher deficits.

"I know there are going to be some who say that this report proves that we can't afford health reform," he said. "I think that has it backwards."