Being president is never a bad gig. Six-figure salary, mongo mansion, fully loaded private jet. Not to mention command of the Seventh Fleet. But for George W. Bush and Al Gore, running back in 2000, the idea of occupying the Oval Office probably looked especially sweet. In addition to leading the planet's only hyperpower, one of them would also serve as CEO of an amazing economy that had notched four years of spectacular growth. Even better, they looked to have a projected 10-year budget surplus of $3.1 trillion to play around with. Lots of fun possibilities there. Big tax cuts, Social Security reform, universal pre-K—with plenty of dough left over. Maybe even that nationwide high-speed rail network that candidate Bill Clinton promised back in 1992 but never delivered as president.
Of course, things didn't quite work out that way. Terrorist attacks, two wars, a recession, and two imploding asset bubbles—stocks then, housing today—have helped radically change the budget situation and economic outlook. When the next president finishes taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, he or she will face an estimated $400 billion deficit—and that's before any possible budget-busting bank bailouts. (Former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder, for instance, suggests the feds borrow $200 billion to $400 billion to fund a New Deal-style financial rescue of the mortgage industry and homeowners.) Plus, the economy might still be suffering from the housing meltdown. A new survey of 49 business economists forecasts so-so 2.9 percent growth next year after sub-2 percent growth this year.
In that environment, it's hard to imagine either huge spending increases or huge tax cuts—you know, the stuff that makes voters love a politician. But there's at least one idea that could generate some presidential pizazz and actually get bipartisan congressional support. Last month, a panel of scientists and engineers, including Google cofounder Larry Page, identified 14 "grand challenges" of engineering that, if met, would dramatically change our lives. Among them: making solar energy economical, providing energy from fusion, and reverse-engineering the human brain to treat disease and create true artificial intelligence.
Bargain. What Uncle Sam could do to inspire entrepreneurs and researchers to turn those challenges into reality is offer innovation prizes, much like the privately funded, $10 million Ansari X-Prize for spaceflight. "An excellent idea," says Charles Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, which organized the panel. "The challenges are technically doable over the next few decades...and there' s room for breakthrough technologies that could improve the human condition around the world."
Now these prizes would probably be much bigger given the scale of the problems. Yet even if the reward was $1 billion or $10 billion, it would still be a relative pittance on a cost-benefit basis. America spends some $400 billion a year on imported oil, after all. (And of course you wouldn't have to spend any taxpayer dough until a prize was awarded.)
Both Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton have mentioned the general idea of innovation prizes during their presidential campaigns. And Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, recently introduced legislation to create a prize for scientists working on capturing and sequestering climate-altering gases.
Think of the possibilities: The next president could regularly update the American public on the progress of the contests, maybe even partnering with one of the science-themed cable channels to turn the whole deal into a reality show—America's Billion Dollar Challenge!—with him or her playing the Jeff Probst role. Now that sounds like a fun job.