During the campaign of 1992, the battle cry was "It's the economy, stupid."
This year, it's the stupid economy that has taken center stage in this year's campaign.
As the housing bubble burst, mortgages failed and banks wound up with worthless assets. nemployment has inched past 6 percent and inflation is just a tick behind it. Those who still have jobs and homes are pinched by stagnant pay, the rising costs of groceries, health care and fuel and the impending sense that the worst may be yet to come. It feels like 1979 all over again to those who remember "stagflation" and long lines at gas stations.
But the $700 billion question facing presidential candidates and voters is: What to do about it? How much should the federal government meddle in our free market economy?
Congress and the White House renewed that long-running debate by moving to inject cash into the lending industry to protect jobs and investments. To the horror of many, the federal government has inserted itself into Wall Street's business in an unprecedented fashion.
At the same time, Congress also tossed a lifeline to the sagging U.S. auto industry, with others lining up for their share of tax dollars to help navigate the shifting global economy.
How did we get into such a mess? At what point did our free markets fail to the point where Uncle Sam had to step in?
The issues are complex and varied, but there is one common thread: We Americans, as a nation and as individuals, have been spending money we don't have for too long. Debt -- by government, by businesses and by individuals -- is eating away at our prosperity.
At the federal level, Congress and the Bush administration have spent like drunken sailors on everything that moves. Massive, pork-laden bills for transportation and energy were passed by Congress and signed into law. Even the financial rescue package was overloaded with pet projects designed to help legislators earn re-election with bags of cash for the homefolks.
Federal spending has gone up nearly 60 percent since 2001. As a result, the Congressional Budget Office projects the annual federal deficit, now at $438 billion, to reach $577 billion by 2013 and $969 billion by 2018, with the overall national debt approaching a staggering $9 trillion.
Much of that can be attributed to the growth of entitlement programs, which eat up half of the federal budget. Social Security and Medicare both face a looming demographic crisis that will boost the next generation's tax burden. Yet our leaders on Capitol Hill haven't shown the courage to even discuss potential solutions for fear of the political damage such moves might cause.
Meanwhile, our wars against extremist forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have whittled away billions more from our national treasury, another debt to be paid by future taxpayers.
On Wall Street, investors have sought quick riches through speculation and Ponzi schemes rather than riding the old-fashioned route to profits through sound business practices. Banks and other lenders were overextended by too many risky mortgages, many of them encouraged by government intervention. When those mortgages failed, the whole system came down like a house of cards in a hurricane.
And the blame extends to U.S. consumers as well. Americans owe more than $2.5 trillion in consumer debt, up 22 percent since 2000, according to the Federal Reserve. The average American household owes more than $8,500 on its credit cards, while students exit college and begin their careers with an average $20,000 burden in loans to pay off.
Quite a few homebuyers have taken on bigger and more expensive houses than they can afford. We spend on cars, big-screen TVs, high-tech phones and other doo-dads that we want more than we need. We're too eager to pull out the plastic and charge it all to the future.
Yet to be fair, some haven't maxed out their cards to load up on luxuries. Health and living expenses continue to go up while salaries have largely stayed flat. For many, putting off payment is not a choice but the only way they can get by. But it's not the kind of sound financial foundation our economy should be built on.
The personal credit crunch carries over to businesses; when individuals can't pay what they owe, those whom they owe suffer as well. Our economic problems trickle up and back down again.
From a governmental approach, fixing such a national psychosis isn't easy. It starts with putting an end to the bailouts; the federal government should close the window for firms looking for more handouts and see if the money already invested in failing companies is worth what is spent before any more is committed.
More oversight of our financial institutions is inevitable, but the new president should tread carefully and make sure that too much government interference doesn't deter the entrepreneurial spirit that can lift us out of the mess.
Small businesses need a boost. Many can't afford to pay workers a decent wage, much less expensive health insurance and other benefits. Business owners and the self-employed find themselves tapped out by these growing costs. More federal help, in the form of tax breaks, are needed to get that weight off their backs.
Our new chief executive must hold Congress accountable for every dime it spends and cut out the kind of wasteful spending that has overloaded our national debt. That means giving the veto pen more of a workout when big-money bills head down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The main thing our new president must provide is something that has been lacking at the federal level: Confidence. When it comes to the economy, panic and uncertainty feed on themselves and make a bad situation even worse. A steady approach is needed to make sure Americans don't go burying jars of cash in the back yard. We need a president who can ease the worries and help calm the economic waters.
Our government needs discipline, and that starts at the top. We can't keep using our national treasure as a comfort food we wolf down in times of stress. It's time to put our long-term fiscal interests ahead of instant gratification, at every level.
It's time for all Americans, our businesses and our government to grow up and act more responsibly if we want to pass a higher standard of living on to future generations.