Candidates face enormous pressure to please voters with expensive promises that appeal to the party faithful. For Democrats, that usually means new or expanded government programs. For Republicans, it's often lower taxes.
Yet "the next President will inherit a fiscally lethal combination of changing demographics, rising health care costs, and falling national savings," according to a Brookings Institution analysis of the economic outlook facing the victor.
While the deficit has dipped to $163 billion for fiscal year 2007, the first members of the baby boom generation, born in 1946, will be eligible for Social Security this year. Over the next two decades, more than 80 million boomers will become eligible for US entitlement programs. That's about 10,000 people per day.
Thus deficits may widen again during the next administration. If Congress stops passing its annual AMT shield, and the Bush tax reductions expire as scheduled, the red ink could surpass $500 billion a year by 2016.
"Without reforms in the near term, the dramatic increases in [entitlement spending] will ultimately require substantial tax increases, major benefit reductions, or massive and unsustainable amounts of borrowing," notes the White House Office of Management and Budget in a 2008 Budget review.
At issue are the candidates' long-term fiscal plans, not their short-term stimulus package ideas for avoiding a recession.