Obama Warns of U.S. Public Debt Toll

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    Obama warns on US public debt pile

    By Edward Luce in Beijing and Krishna Guha in Washington

    Published: November 18 2009 13:35
    Last updated: November 18 2009 21:07

    US President Barack Obama warned that the US economy could head into a “double-dip recession” unless urgent steps were taken to rein in mounting public debt.

    The US president’s remarks – in an interview with Fox News in Beijing on Wednesday, towards the end of his eight-day tour of Asia – marked his strongest language yet on the necessity of putting public finances back on a sound footing.

    “It is important though to recognize if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the US economy in a double-dip recession,” said Mr Obama.

    A 10.6 per cent plunge in housing starts in October – led by collapse in the apartment business – highlighted the dilemma facing him as he seeks to tackle the deficit without undermining a fragile economy.

    “It’s about as hard of a play as there is,” Mr Obama said, adding that his team was trying to set up a “pathway long term for deficit reduction” without pulling a lot of money out of the economy in the short term via tax rises or spending cuts.

    The mood in the US has already swung in favour of deficit reduction, with Republicans attacking Democrats’ plans for more spending to support jobs.

    Washington-based analysts said the president was probably trying to prepare public opinion for a tough budget in February – while leaving open some space for measures to reduce unemployment, now at 10.2 per cent.

    “I have no doubt that the White House is going to produce a tough budget,” said Maya MacGuineas, director of the Peterson-Pew commission on budget reform. “The question is whether they are going to spend political capital and push their budget in Congress.”

    The timing of Mr Obama’s remarks, which came at the end of his three-day trip to China, is likely to fuel speculation that his Chinese hosts delivered stern private warnings about the consequences of continuing high US budget deficits. China, the biggest foreign holder of US Treasury bonds, has become increasingly vocal in its fears on the value of its dollar assets.

    White House officials say the US fiscal situation had no impact on Obama’s interactions in Beijing, even though some observers presented his trip as that of a debtor visiting his banker. “He pulled no punches,” said Mike Froman, a senior national security adviser.

    A day earlier, White House budget chief Peter Orszag said the US had to bring down its deficit to about 3 per cent of gross domestic product within six years – a reduction of about one percentage point of GDP based on the administration’s current estimates.
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