I spent a good bit of time this past week in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia to investigate what the impending fiscal cliff might mean to real people and real businesses there, what those folks were worried about, and what they wanted from Washington. This is a region dependent on defense spending, with one of the largest naval bases in the world, and it is conservative on issues such as taxes. I talked to a defense subcontractor, an office-supply store owner, a hair-salon owner, people in the tourism industry, the mayor of Norfolk, and just regular folks.
I was ready to hear about specific policies they wanted on taxes or federal spending. I was ready to hear ideas that were partisan, driven from either a Democratic or Republican perspective. I heard neither. In every conversation I had, the bottom-line demand or request was for Washington to show leadership and offer certainty. They don’t need to know how their business will do ultimately; they just need solid policies from which they can build plans for the future. It is a sense of certainty they are seeking from the federal government so that they can make judgments and calculate risks in their businesses and careers. They want our leaders to come to a compromise and then stick to it for a while. They need surety to get on with the important decisions in their lives.
And what they don’t understand is why Washington can’t do that. These folks are willing to lead in their communities and in their workplaces. They are willing to make the hard choices in their neighborhoods and businesses. They do it every day, and they aren’t one to shy away from the tough decisions. They want our federal government to grow up and give them some consistent direction on tax policy and government spending. And they want something that will stick for five years or so. They don’t get why it is so hard for the leaders in the capital to do what they themselves in Virginia do every day.
All the folks I talked to say they are able to deal with the inevitable cycles of the economy. They understand there are times of growth and times of contraction, and they said they can make the decisions they need to make in response to big economic movements. What they are very frustrated by is Washington’s reluctance to lead on such a big issue as the budget and a seeming unwillingness on both sides to put aside partisan talking points and compromise.
If we end up going over the fiscal cliff, these folks around Norfolk are going to blame both sides, because they think each is at fault. They blame the president for not doing more to sit down directly with Republicans in Congress and show up each day and talk it through. They think all he has done so far is window dressing. They also blame Republicans in Congress for not being willing to throw out an old mantra on taxes and come up with something new that they can agree with the president on. These voters are tired of old talking points and of Republicans who are blocking the president at all costs.
If they had one direct piece of advice for both the administration and Congress it would be: “Don’t act like children and let us go over the fiscal cliff for spite's sake. Come to the table as adults and compromise and make whatever deal there is long term. Give us some certainty.” All of these folks would respect our leaders more, even if the policies hurt their businesses or budgets, if they saw our federal government providing leadership and certainty in a time of great anxiety and change.