The Treasury can afford to pay its bills, now that a clean debt-ceiling increase has been passed. That must be a relief.
The last couple of months have been an encouraging turn in a more positive direction. You saw Congress pass a budget in December. You saw Congress pass an appropriations bill in January. And in between you had a farm bill that had been locked up for years in disagreement. And the debt ceiling passing takes away the threat of a self-inflicted wound, which would have only hurt our economy. So I’m an optimist. The self-inflicted wounds of the last few years kind of slowed down the recovery. I’m pleased we’re not seeing that.
I’ve heard a lot of people say, “This is the time to invest in this country’s future.”
I don’t believe things like infrastructure are partisan issues. It’s fair to say that Republicans and Democrats alike want to build a better country and want to invest more. When I talk to CEOs, the two things I hear from them are, “Will we have the infrastructure to get what we need in and out of our factories?” And, “Will we have the workforce that we need in 5, 10, 20 years from now?”
Will the president be able to do those things with a gridlocked Congress?
It’s important to do what we can. The president just signed an executive order on the minimum wage. It’s not the same as raising the minimum wage for all workers, but the federal government is the largest purchaser of goods and services in the country. And what we do makes a difference. If you can’t get the law changed, you should do what you can.
What are your growth assumptions for the U.S. economy this year?
The second half of the year ended strong, and that’s where we begin 2014. We’ll put out a budget in a few weeks with specific assumptions, but it’s fair to say that when we look at things like the Blue Chip Economic [survey] and other forecasts, things are hovering at a rate that will be hitting or going just beyond 3 percent [GDP growth]. The challenge is going to be making sure we do everything we can to encourage that growth to continue.
Are you as optimistic about the job market?
If you look at the jobs numbers, there have been some confusing cross-signals. But we’ve seen 8.5 million private-sector jobs created in this country since the beginning of the administration. I would love to see consistently high jobs numbers every month, but the trend is still in the right direction. We still have a lot more to do. Until we have an economy where everyone who wants to work can get a job, we’re going to keep at it. We’ve had a couple of economic statistics that people are asking questions about, but we have a consensus that the economy is still growing, and it’s growing at a healthy rate.
What about the Senate’s refusal to extend unemployment benefits?
Well, I hope we’re not done with the debate. Unemployment benefits being extended is very important. If you look at the unemployment statistics, we’ve seen kind of a fork in the road, where the short-term unemployment rate is approaching historical levels and the long-term rate is staying quite high. It’s not because people don’t want to work. Once you’re out of the workforce for more than a couple of weeks, couple of months, it’s harder to get back in. People who are trying to find a job in an economy where it’s challenging need extended benefits. But the ultimate goal is not giving people long-term unemployment insurance. The ultimate goal is getting people back to work.
Is 2014 a year to avoid the long-term problems?
If you look at the big long-term issues, health care is clearly the most challenging, and we’ve done a great deal. We’ve triggered a reduction in spending on health that’s showing marked impact. It’s one of the most significant pieces of legislation in my lifetime, and we’re determined for it to be a successful legacy.