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Debt proposal is an invitation to Professor Obama

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By Ruth Marcus
Saturday, November 13, 2010

The predictably childish reactions of the left and right to the budget blueprint unveiled by the co-chairs of President Obama's debt commission offer the president a chance to play a role to which he may be uniquely suited: the grown-up in the room.

The co-chairs' proposal has put Obama in an exquisitely awkward situation. He is laboring under the pressure to embrace or reject controversial ideas without enjoying the comforting shelter of bipartisan consensus. This was not the result, or rollout, that the White House wanted. But it has created the potential space for Obama to carve out the post-partisan presidential identity he so far been unable or unwilling to assert.

This assignment, if he chooses to accept it, won't be easy. It would be politically perilous. After all, if children had the vote, their first instinct would not be to elect their parents or, for that matter, any grown-up - even if they know, deep down, that they need adult supervision. It will require intensive - let's be blunt, remedial - voter education about the necessary trade-offs. And this must, finally, be followed by presidential willingness to take the risk of laying out in detail what he believes those trade-offs should be, because the deficit commission isn't going to do it for him.

Easy for a columnist to advise, perhaps, but let's face it, Mr. President, that electoral map isn't looking too inviting. And haven't you always said you don't want to be just another can-kicker?

The time is ripe. Voters know instinctively that, much like their own households, the country can't continue to live so far beyond its means. What they don't understand, because no politician has been willing to tell them straight out, is that fixing this situation counsels, if not mandates, a balanced approach of tax increases and spending cuts. The budget fairy isn't going to magically solve the problem by tucking a trillion or two under the national pillow.

This means telling each side what it doesn't want to hear. Conservatives must accept that tax increases need to be on the table to achieve fiscal stability, but be mollified that this change can be accomplished in a way that encourages economic growth. Liberals must accept that promised entitlement benefits are not affordable and must be pared, but be assured that this adjustment can be done in a way that maintains or even enhances protections for the most vulnerable.

The country is, I think, mature enough to grasp that message. Voters' anxiety about the fiscal picture signals their receptiveness to considering that solutions will not be pain-free. But their learning curve is going to have to be steep.

A poll conducted this summer by the centrist Democratic group Third Way illustrates the chasm in popular understanding between budgetary reality and politician-enabled delusion. Fully three-fourths of those polled said they believed that the budget could be balanced without raising taxes. The same number said the budget could be balanced without touching Social Security and Medicare. Assuming the minimum overlap, that means half are still clinging to illusions of the budget fairy snipping away at waste, fraud and abuse and sprinkling magic growth-dust on the economy.

Which is where the president should come in, wearing his Professor Obama hat and channeling his inner Ross Perot, complete with charts. This work shouldn't wait for the budget to come out next February. It shouldn't wait for the State of the Union address next January. The White House should be speed-writing the lesson plan now, and the class should start right after the deficit commission races - or, more likely, limps - to what is apt to be a fractured and unsatisfying conclusion Dec. 1.

I propose a weekly seminar, perhaps 15 minutes, made available to the networks in the same way as the president's weekly video address is, and available at any time online, with links to budget documents and proposals and an interactive build-your-own budget feature to illustrate the cost of various trade-offs.

Surely someone could build the iPad app. Heck, invite dissenting guest lecturers - Professor Paul Ryan, the blackboard is yours - to make the opposing case.

Because the more voters understand the unforgiving arithmetic of budget choices and the looming disaster that inaction invites, the more they will understand the childishness of the extremes on both sides. And the more they will crave and, ultimately, reward presidential leadership.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com


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