On budget and debt talks, a lack of presidential leadership from Obama

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES - President Barack Obama and congressional leaders have much work to do to solve the budget and debt crises threatening the U.S. economy.

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and five expert contributors — Governor Mitch Daniels, former Senate leader Tom Daschle, Harvard professor John P. Kotter, former Congressman Slade Gorton and Wharton professor Stuart Diamond — about the leadership issues at the core of the U.S. debt debacle.

Last December, the president's budget deficit commission outlined a program to dramatically reduce, though not to eliminate, our massive budget deficits. The president ignored it.

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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Instead, in January, President Obama proposed a budget showing deficits north of a trillion dollars a year as far as the eye could see. It disappeared without a trace. And though House Republicans later passed a budget cutting the long-term budget roughly in half without new taxes, largely by dramatic changes in Medicare, Democrats and the president denounced it.

Since then, neither the president nor the Democrats in either House have produced any budget at all.

Meanwhile, Moody's threatens to downgrade our debt, and official unemployment persists at more than 9 percent, with unofficial figures at twice that level.

We know this country cannot long continue to spend 23 to 24 percent of its GNP while taking in only 18 to 19 percent in revenues. This disparity, and the lack of any discernable agreement on a road out of the dilemma, is causing pervasive, country-wide pessimism — which is in turn contributing heavily to a continuing recession and a lack of significant job growth.

Vice President Biden spent a month or more meeting privately with a handful of secondary leaders of both parties, apparently reaching some agreement on modest but unspecified spending cuts outside of the major entitlements. and yet only last week Republicans walked away from those talks because of the Democrats' insistence on tax increases. This week the president is meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the subject, apparently without a specific proposal of his own that would sharply change our present disastrous fiscal course.

Is there any wonder that a weak recovery is grinding to a halt? We lack any certainty that the United States can and will meet its budget and employment challenges any better than can Greece. And what’s worse, we have no one to bail us out. Where is the necessary leadership?

Only strong, articulate and courageous leadership now can meet and surmount the two challenges of debt and unemployment, and the only individual who can provide that leadership is the president of the United States, who has so far played no significant role in finding a solution.

We must distinguish, of course, between the institutional opportunity for leadership from the White House and from the Congress. Any president is the final and sole spokesman for the entire administration. What he says becomes its position. His trumpet is either clear, muted or silent. Not so with the Congress. Speaker Boehner (and Senators Reid and McConnell as well) can lead only to the extent that he can persuade the members of his caucus to follow, a task seriously complicated by the promises they made to their constituents in order to become members of that caucus.

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.

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.

 
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