President Bush's budget director, Joshua Bolten, admits what budget watchers in Washington have been saying for some time: When baby boomers start retiring less than 10 years from now, there will be "enormous challenges to our budget situation."
Why? Fewer workers will be available to pay rapidly rising Medicare and Social Security costs.
To get ready, the federal government should significantly reduce the amount of debt it has relative to the size of the economy. That would provide additional financial maneuvering room to pay boomers' retirement costs and to reform both Social Security and Medicare so they remain viable.
But gaining flexibility in the future will require controlling deficits now.
The latest Congressional Budget Office figures reveal the challenge. The federal government's spending outpaced revenues by $374 billion in the 12 months ending Sept. 30 - the largest deficit in history in dollar terms. The deficits of the mid-1980s and early '90s, however, were larger relative to the size of the economy.
Budget czar Bolten says he is optimistic that over the next five years the administration can cut the annual budget deficit in half from the $475 billion in red ink projected for fiscal 2004. Bolten says that assumes "pursuit of strong, pro-growth economic policies and exercise of fiscal restraint," which is how the Bush team describes its current approach.
The Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan watchdog group, is less hopeful. Using different assumptions, it says current policies could produce deficits totaling $5 trillion over the next 10 years, with the annual figure never falling below $420 billion.
To prevent that prediction from coming true, voters will need to encourage politicians to make unselfish choices on taxes and spending.
Toward that end, it is heartening that a recent poll found that three-quarters of those surveyed said a candidate's position on the deficit will be important in determining who gets their vote for president in 2004.
When it comes to making tough choices, there's nothing so courageous as a politician who does what voters want.