While President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney have traded barbs about Big Bird and big government, two of the nation's foremost economic advisers were at UW-Madison Thursday to speak to students about the role of economic issues in the upcoming election.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of domestic and economic policy for John McCain's presidential campaign, and Jeffrey Liebman, a former Obama administration economist, spent two hours outlining the economic successes and failures from the last four years in an effort to persuade the roughly 100 students in attendance.
Holtz-Eakin hammered Obama and said the rising national debt is giving the youngest Americans "the short end of the fiscal stick."
"It is fundamentally unfair to leave behind the legacy of debt that this country has run up. And it's even worse because in some cases the very programs that are going to make that worse hit you again," he said. "What's the new health care reform do? It says you have to buy health insurance because you're cheap and we're going to put you in the pool so you can pay the bills of the people who are older and sicker than you."
Liebman pulled a page from the Obama campaign's playbook, blaming the nation's budget deficit on George W. Bush policies — particularly wars and tax cuts, which he said were not paid for.
"Twelve years ago as George (W.) Bush was taking office, the Congressional Budget Office was projecting a budget surplus of 2.7 percent of GDP for that year. Just two years later, that surplus had become a deficit of 3.5 percent of GDP," he said.
Though there was little agreement on debt, the two agreed that rising college costs and falling graduation rates were problematic. They disagreed on the roles of some popular government programs related to higher education.
While Liebman, now a professor at Harvard University, reminded students of Obama's investment in Pell Grants, Holtz-Eakin argued that Pell Grants are wasted on students that don't finish college.
"We're spending record amounts on Pell Grants with no better college completion. We can get people in, but we're not getting any completion out of this," he said, pointing to lack of preparation from some K-12 school systems, financial problems and other factors.