So the necessity for leadership does not end with Barack Obama, but it does begin with him. Only when the president is willing to announce that he understands the depth of our problems and that they require a course change that he had not previously contemplated can he seriously ask Republican leaders to do the same, to join hands with him and to dive into very cold water together.
What does that dive entail? For the president, and only thereafter for the Democratic congressional leadership, it means that the large entitlements—Medicare, Medicaid and social security, including elements of last year's healthcare bill—must be revised in a manner that will save at least hundreds of billions of dollars in the near future. That’s a huge sacrifice on the part the president and his supporters.
Slade Gorton is a former U.S. senator and Washington State attorney general. He also served on the 9/11 Commission.
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Yet only then can the president reasonably ask Republicans to reexamine their adamant refusal to increase the government revenues enough to meet the real needs of an aging population. With the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age in ever increasing numbers, the structure of entitlements must change; but so too must Republicans’ recognition that more retirees will require more money, no matter how dramatic the entitlement reforms.
The good news coming out of the Republican camp is that a large majority of their senators have already shown the necessary courage by voting to end perhaps the most outrageous of all of tax preferences, that for corn-based ethanol. Republicans cannot, however, and should not be expected to agree to permanent increases in any forms of taxation when what they would get in return are promises to freeze or reduce discretionary spending programs long into the future that history shows are never kept.
If Republicans and conservatives are asked to break solemn pledges on taxes, it can only be as a response to similar, larger and enforceable promises on the part of the president and Democrats with respect to the largest and most popular spending programs. And no such promises will come from Democratic members of Congress without reasoned and articulate leadership from the White House.
Regrettably, no such presidential leadership has been evident on any issue for the first two and a half years of Barack Obama's presidency. Nevertheless, he still has one of the largest mandates provided any president for the better part of a century. That, along with his undoubted eloquence, means he can still be successful in meeting the great challenges of our times if he is willing to make the effort.
Chances for success should be greater right now with a mixed government than they would be with one-party control. Two years ago, huge Democratic congressional majorities hardly tried the tax increases they ask Republicans to pass now. And it is highly doubtful that a Republican president and Congress two years from now would fare any better against adamant Democratic opposition.
The time is now; the opportunity will never be better nor the solution easier.