Although ideologically George W. Bush and Manmohan Singh were poles apart, they got on very well. There was an eerie similarity in their fiscal policy, almost as if they had consulted each other on how to ruin their governments. Mr Bush reduced taxes on the rich; Mr Singh showered money on his favourites, whom he called aam admis. The effect on fiscal balance was the same; both statesmen ended their reigns with enormous fiscal deficits. It may well happen that Mr Singh is returned to power after the general election, in which case the rake’s progress may continue for another five years. But the American people have already punished Mr Bush for his disastrous policies, and elected Barack Obama supported by a Democratic majority in Congress. Even before he was elected, Mr Obama had promised to repair the fisc and announced specific plans for doing so: make taxes more progressive, introduce discipline whereby an increase in expenditure on any count would be balanced by a parallel cut somewhere else, introduce competitive bidding for government contracts over $25,000, and eliminate pork-barrel politics.
However, fiscal reform is not all that Mr Obama needs to do. He has inherited an economy that is sliding into a depression; to counteract it he needs to run a larger fiscal deficit. It will raise the already high American federal debt, and divert a higher proportion of revenue to paying interest. If he is to stop interest payments from rising, he must raise taxes. Currently, the United States of America’s gross domestic product is declining at an annual rate of six per cent. In these dire circumstances, he cannot raise taxes without worsening the malaise. So he would have to divide his term into a period when he would run deficits averaging a trillion dollars a year, and another period when he would raise taxes to start paying off the debt. The second period cannot begin until the economy is well on the way to recovery. American recessions typically last two to three years; so if it were business as usual, Mr Obama should be able to raise taxes in the last year or two of his term. But these are not normal times; economists are talking of a serious depression. If it happens, Mr Obama will simply not have enough time to reverse his expansionary policies during a term of four years.
So he should have calculated by now that to get the economy back on track he will need a second term. This is not an unreasonable desire; even Mr Bush, who was a disastrous president, won a second term. But a second term has to be contested and won. And if the economy continues to do badly in the next four years, Mr Obama may not retain enough popularity to win a second term. So he begins his presidency with a wide gap between the ideal and the possible.