News reports have suggested that at some point between now and the November election, the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden will pledge that if elected, he would only serve a single term. Some wags suggest that Biden won't make the promise, but he'll strongly imply a one-and-done presidency, given that he'll be 81 in 2024.

Obviously if President Trump is reelected, running again in 2024 is not an option, but with Trump’s own senior economic adviser, Kevin Hassett, predicting a 20 to 30 percent drop in U.S. economic growth in the second quarter, it would be hard to envy anyone taking that oath of office eight months from now or expect that any occupant of that job to finish four years of this in shape to run again, regardless of their age.

My friend Sid Jones, who served as a senior economist in the Commerce and Treasury Departments for Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush, refers to “alphabet options for the post-recession recovery and expansion." He means the possible shapes of the downturn and recovery, from the “V” (sharply down, followed by a sharp upturn), “U,” (longer on the bottom), “W” (also known as a double dip), and “L” (sharply down, and staying there for a long time).

Over a decade ago, Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, then an almost-25-year old writing in The New York Times, guided readers through the various alphabet-shaped downturn scenarios. In so doing, she pricelessly passed along the line the former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson had used comparing a U recession shape to a bathtub: "You go in. You stay in. The sides are slippery. You know, maybe there’s some bumpy stuff in the bottom, but you don’t come out of the bathtub for a long time." The most recent example was the mid-1970s downturn.

Earlier this month, Jones told his clients, “As to the economy, there definitely are two separate worlds. The stock market appears to be focused on optimistic predictions about events six to 12 months from now when the domestic economy supposedly has returned to normal despite a massive global recession. There obviously are some good stock buys available, but the macro outlook is frightening.“

We don’t know what letter will be in our future, hopefully just a brief V, but we know that the pain will be great, the medicine bitter, the recovery work arduous, and the bills to pay on the other side of it crushing. The reality is that anyone taking the office of the presidency on Jan. 20, 2021 may well be called upon to do things that would effectively limit them to one term.

The young are taught of the need to save for a rainy day. But the tax cuts passed by Congress and signed into law in 2017 sent federal deficits and the debt soaring to unprecedented levels even in a sunny period. Now, we don’t have just a rainy day, we have a monsoon. The floods are upon us.

As Forbes, hardly an arm of the Democratic Party, put it in February, “President Obama entered office in early 2009 in the teeth of the Great Recession. Not surprisingly, the deficit exploded from $459 billion in calendar 2008 to over $1.4 trillion in calendar 2009. As the economy recovered the deficits shrank to a low of $442 billion in 2015 and was $585 billion his last year in office.

“President Trump on the other hand was handed an economy that was growing. In 2017, his first year in office the deficit grew to $666 billion, was $984 billion last year and is projected to be over $1 trillion in 2020 at $1.02 trillion. This would be a 74 percent increase in just four years and going forward the federal deficit could escalate to $1.7 trillion in 2030.”

Washington Post story last August put it another way. Its headline read: "With deficit rising, worries grow the U.S. may be out of tools if recession hits."

Since 1970, the federal budget was only balanced in three years, 1998 to 2001 under Bill Clinton. While Clinton and his administration certainly deserve some credit, it was his predecessor, George H.W. Bush who effectively sacrificed his presidency to get deficits under control. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 paved the way, through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, to that brief period of black ink. Democrats held majorities in both the House and the Senate, but Republicans clearly had seats at the table as well and it was, in every sense, a bipartisan agreement. (Anyone curious about the process ought to read the account of a 2012 symposium put on by George Mason University, the Bipartisan Policy Center, and Deloitte.)

It is little wonder that Bush later wrote, “If I didn’t have this budget problem hanging over my head, I would be loving this job.” Indeed, Bush didn’t win reelection but almost a quarter-century later was awarded the Profiles in Courage Award for it.

Given the tribalism and hyper-partisanship today, it is hard to imagine a feat like Bush and congressional leaders of both parties pulled off in 1990. But really tough decisions often come with a high political price—no matter how old or young a president is.

This story was originally published on on April 28, 2020

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