The U.S. 2020 election — barring a shocker — offers a strong chance of producing a president in their 70s.
American voters face leading candidates who are another septuagenarian baby boomer whose vision for America is to go back to the so-called glory days (Donald Trump), go back to boring (Joe Biden) or radically reshape America by spending trillions upon trillions of dollars (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders) the U.S. may not really have.
And the strangest bit is that each of these front-runners, even with radically different approaches, is promising to somehow address massive structural problems that their own generation — the enormous baby boom — largely created during a three-decade run dominating American political life.
The offering includes outliers like Pete Buttigieg, the millennial South Bend, Ind. mayor running openly on generational change. But the most likely outcome as it stands now is that the nation will yet again ask a baby boomer to fix what the baby boom broke. And it’s a lot to fix.
“We have Social Security. We have the national debt. We have what’s called ‘deferred maintenance’ in infrastructure. And of course we have the climate,” Bruce Gibney, author of “A Generation of Sociopaths,” said in the first episode of “Baby Bust,” the new POLITICO Money podcast series on the political and financial legacy of the baby boom generation. “I think the main impediment right now is the death grip the boomers have had over the political system.”
What went wrong
That death grip could hold at least another four and perhaps eight years in the White House.
Gibney and other critics of the baby boom generation argue that the huge cohort that came of age in the prosperous years after World War II spent much of their time in power cutting their own taxes, ensuring that giant entitlement programs are protected — at least for themselves — and doing little to protect the environment or invest in American infrastructure or address the mounting student loan crisis.
It wasn’t entirely their fault, students of the generation say. Boomers just grew up at a time when everything was fairly awesome and people assumed they would stay that way.
The baby boomers “grew up in an era when there was something close to full employment almost all the time. Wages were going up with productivity, and productivity was going up very fast. Incomes were growing at the rate of 2 percent a year, something that we haven’t seen since,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and himself a boomer. “The baby boom happened to get older at the same time that America adopted an economic model that was actually pretty counter-productive, which did not actually produce rising wages and incomes for people at a very good clip, that enhanced inequality.”
A bipartisan generational critique
The first boomer U.S. president, Bill Clinton, did raise taxes in the early 1990s and briefly created government surpluses after all the charts and warnings and televised lectures from Ross Perot. But he also suffered an ugly impeachment over personal misbehavior and efforts to cover it up.
And progressives blame him for expanding the penal state, cutting capital gains taxes for the rich and engaging in petty personal feuds with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich — another boomer — leading to government shutdowns and the dawn of the kind of scorched earth, Forever War politics that now dominate Washington.
U.S. President George W. Bush, far from addressing government funding problems, engaged in a short-lived movement to privatize Social Security and added an expensive prescription drug program to Medicare whose main beneficiary was older Americans. His presidency was then largely consumed by the massive and costly post-9/11 war on terror, leaving concerns about climate, entitlements and infrastructure spending aside.
Barack Obama — technically a late-era boomer but more Gen X by personal temperament — attempted to strike a “grand bargain” with tea party-led Republicans and then-House Speaker John Boehner to address long-term entitlement sustainability and spending issues along with significant tax hikes.
But it all fell apart when progressives balked at entitlement overhauls and Republicans at tax hikes. The brief bipartisan moment when it seemed like some real change might happen vanished as quickly as it appeared.
The rise of Trump
Following Obama — whom many Gen Xers claim as one of their own — boomers helped elect another boomer, Donald Trump, partly on his promises to restore manufacturing greatness while also not touching any entitlements for those at or nearing retirement.
Trump essentially junked the entire approach of the tea party movement in favor of far greater spending on the military — along with Democratic priorities to secure the Pentagon money — and signed a $2 trillion tax cut that slashed rates for corporations and rich people with a little thrown in for everyone else. Under Trump’s watch, the annual deficit has grown close to $1 trillion and the national debt to over $22 trillion.
Baby boomers in power, according to their critics, have done a fairly good job of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare will be protected for those at retirement but much less to ensure they will be fully funded for later retirees.
The GOP has essentially returned to the ethos of former U.S. vice president Dick Cheney — that deficits don’t matter — after they spent the Obama presidency threatening shutdowns and debt defaults over out-of-control spending. Critics of Trump’s fiscal approach argue the tax cut was the last gasp of the baby boom attempting to direct money to itself.
“The tax cut that was passed [in 2017] is the best example,” said author and attorney Steven Brill, also a baby boomer. “Most of the money the corporations have saved through that tax cut have gone to buybacks of stocks, which make the shareholders richer.”
Trump also pledged to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement aimed at sharply reducing emissions and rolled back many environmental regulations of the Obama White House.
Through all of this, U.S. presidents and Congresses of both parties, largely governed by baby boomers, did little to address what engineers suggest are nearly $5 trillion in infrastructure updates needed in the U.S. as rising powers like China pour massive resources into such projects. Calling every week “infrastructure week” has become a running joke in political circles.
Baby boomers in power, according to their critics, have done a fairly good job of ensuring that Social Security and Medicare will be protected for those at or near retirement — including tens of millions of boomers — but much less to ensure they will be fully funded for later retirees including Gen X, millennials and Gen Z.
Social Security and Medicare might not be going broke. But the outlook isn’t great.
“As long as people are working there will be at least money coming into Social Security,” said Nancy Altman, chair of the board of directors of the Pension Rights Center. “Even if Congress did nothing whatsoever, people would get three-quarters of their scheduled benefits, which is not good enough, but it isn’t nothing.”
Many baby boomers defend the generation’s contributions, citing advances in gender equality, the protest movement against the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement (even though most landmark civil and voting rights laws were passed when the median boomer was around 12 years old).
Some also argue that it’s not fair to look at political failures through a purely generational lens, arguing that plenty of boomers (including Warren and Sanders) have long argued for more forward-thinking, less self-interested policies but failed to win enough power to enact them. And they say there is still a legacy the baby boom can leave to Gen X, millennials and Gen Z as those generations finally take over political power.
“Typical Xer, you’re saying, ‘Yeah, they gave us diet foods and yoga,’” said Neil Howe, managing director of demography at Hedgeye and a leading theorist on generational cycles. “I think boomers gave younger generations a language of communitarianism and whole-ism that they are going to use when it comes time to bind this country back together again.”
The boomer Democrats
The current crop of Democratic candidates is dominated by boomers and near-boomers including Biden, Warren and Sanders who are one, two and three in nearly every national and state poll. Biden has largely based his campaign around taking another shot at the Obama approach that sought to address major structural problems like climate change, entitlements and debt through coalition-building, both domestically and in international accords like the Paris treaty and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a giant trade deal meant in part to counter China’s rise as a global economic and military power.
Warren and Sanders both have widespread support from many younger voters.
Obama’s biggest legacy, the Affordable Care Act, was more of an incremental approach to driving down costs and making care more accessible. Biden has defended the law but is struggling to beat back challenges from the left that what is needed is not incrementalism but radical change including wealth taxes, “Medicare for All,” student loan forgiveness and free college. Entire industries, including big tech and Wall Street, need to be busted up and reformed, according to the Warren and Sanders view of the world.
For progressives and economists who believe deficits and debt really don’t matter at all, this is a welcome change in political direction. And Warren and Sanders both have widespread support from many younger voters.
But Warren has now found herself in something of a political quagmire as she promises to explain how she would pay for government-funded health care for all with estimates of the cost at around $3 trillion a year without boosting taxes on the middle class.
The millennial Democrat
Into all this comes Buttigieg, running as a millennial alternative to all the older candidates as well as more of a centrist who wants to take on structural problems left by the boomers but not in ways that send deficits and debt into the stratosphere.
“You have a different sense of urgency around these issues if you’re expecting in your lifetime to be dealing with them personally,” Buttigieg said on the podcast. “So by 2054, when I get to the current age of the current president, the shape of the world then, both environmentally, economically and beyond, that’s not a theoretical question; it’s a personal one that I have to prepare for just as a human being.”
Buttigieg added that, “There’s just no way we can get very far into the next few decades on this tax policy without a fiscal time bomb going off.”
And as for the baby boom legacy? “I think a lot of wrong decisions get made out of just a kind of political or moral laziness that says that certain consequences, because they’re going to hit down the road, aren’t consequences for the politicians who are dealing with them, especially politicians who work one election cycle at a time,” Buttigieg said.
What about Gen X?
Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, may never find themselves with a U.S. president to call their own, even if they lay claim to Obama, who was born in 1961. But that doesn’t mean the generation won’t have a significant role to play in future elections and political debates that increasingly pit baby boomers bent on protecting their investments and entitlements against millennials and members of Gen Z seeking to significantly alter the structure of taxation and federal benefits.
The role may wind up being quintessential Gen X, attempting to referee between much bigger generations to find some kind of compromise where everyone can win.
“I guess we’re going to have to choose, in some of these presidential elections, if it pits a baby boomer against a millennial with very different ideas, and I think there is significant political weight to Gen X and how those decisions are ultimately made, right?” said Amy Walter, a Gen Xer and national editor of the Cook Political Report.
“Like, we’re not meaningless in terms of which way we go in the coming presidential elections of the next four, eight, 12 — even longer than that. There is some significant political importance to how Gen X decides on a lot of these things.”