President Obama is off to Europe with a full portfolio – NATO quibbles, missile defense, counterterrorism, Libya, courtesy calls on Queen Elizabeth II – but there’s really only one thing worth talking about in the Old World these days: the shape of the fiscal disaster that is gnawing through the continent.
Obama starts his trip in Ireland. After a few “O’Bama” jokes, the discussion will quickly turn to that country’s looming insolvency. Ireland is about $150 billion in debt, a pittance compared to the lush $14.3 trillion U.S. debt load, but it is an unbearable burden for a nation of only 4.5 million.
The new Irish head of state, Enda Kenny, will have one main goal with Obama: getting the president’s support for refinancing Ireland’s loans.
Ireland will soon default on the massive bailout packages granted to the nation when its once-blossoming economy was vaporized in the Panic of 2008. The loans, provided by the other members of the European Union and American-dominated international outfits like the International Monetary Fund, prevented bankruptcy but are now proving impossible to pay off.
The Europeans want the Irish to jack up their corporate tax rates, the lowest in the region to come up with the vigorish. But the Irish know that the companies lured in with their 10 percent rate for manufacturers ever since 2003 will pull up stakes for the cheap labor of Asia if the Irish embrace the high tax levels of Western Europe and the U.S.
The Irish make a convincing argument. They have already slashed their government to the bone as part of an austerity package imposed to win the loans. And the tiny country’s economy might never recover if big employers pull up stakes now. When your economy is only about the size of Louisiana’s, you don’t have much cushion for absorbing economic shocks.
Later in the week, Obama will head to France for a summit among the leaders of the G-8, the countries that were once the eight largest economies in the world. And again, debt will be at the top of the agenda.
For six of the group’s members, debt is a necessary fixation. For the large European countries, Britain, France and Germany, the question is how to save the European Union as its poorest members topple into bankruptcy. There will be a lot of sidelong glances at Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, whose country is one of the prime offenders.
Italy has a more plausible path to fiscal continuity than Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain – collectively dubbed the PIIGS for their debt gluttony. But the others won’t be on hand to be reproached by the likes of Germany’s Angela Merkel and Britain’s David Cameron, both of whom have slashed spending and urged their neighbors to shape up their shattered entitlement systems.
The situation is so dire that the basket cases like Greece and Spain may have to pull out of the continent’s common currency in order to force the massive inflation that would allow them to pay off their debts with cheap money. When forcing your citizens to take a suitcase full of drachmas to the bakery to buy their pitas looks like a viable option, you know you’ve come to the brink.
Japan, already facing a dire debt load, is now looking into a similarly bleak future because of the massive borrowing that it will need in order to rebuild its tsunami-stricken nation. Even with lots of cheap loans, Japan faces decades of debt oppression.
Since taking office, Obama has been urging his colleagues to resist the urge for austerity and keep pumping money into the world economy. He has warned that a failure to keep goosing their GDPs could mean backsliding into recession. His pleas have mostly been ignored as leaders watched chaos in the streets and slashed credit ratings debilitate their neighbors, but Obama has still pushed for more, more, more.
On this trip, though, don’t expect the president to be so throaty.
The 2010 elections dealt a stinging blow to Obamanomics. While the president still talks about “winning the future” with “investments” in environmental projects and public transportation, everyone knows that the name of the game now is cuts.
Obama hasn’t done any better at convincing Republicans and moderate Democrats of the need to keep stimulating than he did with Merkel, and he will return to the wealthy nations club having been decisively defeated on the issue at home.
And the fun has just begun.
There was some faffering from the White House about Congress increasing the nation’s debt limit without conditions. That was met with stony silence from moderate Democrats and hoots of derision from Republicans. Now, the president and other Democratic leaders acknowledge that there must be cuts, and are only trying to limit their scope.
Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have both warned that fiscal conservatives in Congress should not “play games” with the debt cap and suggested that any brinksmanship could damage American creditworthiness and send the world economy into a depression.
But investors gobbled up the final batch of American bonds under the current debt ceiling. While the administration likes to talk about the dangers of default, the smart money says that the U.S. will pay its obligations and may be on the road to fiscal rehabilitation. Compared to the fiscal sinkholes of Europe and Asia, America looks rock solid.
The irony for Obama is that the fighting over the debt limit actually strengthens America’s fiscal standing. When the PIIGS and the Japanese were gorging themselves on cheap debt, there was no talk about fiscal reform and no opposition parties willing to force a government shutdown unless reforms were made.
U.S. spending (and debt accrual) will certainly be lower a year from now than it is today. That is a reassurance to lenders who were starting to worry that Obama’s strategy for ongoing stimulus was putting Uncle Sam on the path to Greek-style ruination. Obama’s argument is that the situation does not yet demand drastic measures, but it is precisely because America is moving to cut before the crisis begins that puts the rest of the world at ease.
Obama might not want to admit it, but the “hostage takers” in Congress have left him looking pretty good as he heads to debt-ravaged Europe.
Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.