The following is an address that you should hear from the Oval Office, but don’t hold your breath.
My fellow Americans, for several generations we have been warned by a procession of business and governmental leaders that our country was on an unsustainable course. Quite simply for too long, the federal government has been spending too much, bringing in too little and making promises for Social Security and Medicare that in the long run it cannot keep.
The crushing federal debt and profound budgetary problems facing our country are the product of decisions by several generations of Democratic and Republican presidents and Congresses. Anyone who believes that their party has not contributed to and perpetuated this problem is simply not facing up to the truth. This is a mess created by both sides. Presidents George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, took steps that helped forestall the crisis for a time and, as a result, the federal budget was briefly balanced. But things have gotten much worse and we are now facing the fiscal equivalent of a train wreck.
Last week a report was issued by two outstanding Americans, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and former chief of staff to President Clinton—the co-chairmen of a deficit and entitlement commission that I set up a year ago. Reading their recommendations carefully, I found little that I liked. I can’t imagine any Democrat who would be enthusiastic about many of the recommendations, particularly the spending cuts and changes to Social Security. But I am sure that the incoming speaker of the House, John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and just about every Republican hate many of the recommendations as well. The fact that people of both parties find so much to dislike suggests that this is not a plan that favors either side.
There is more than enough in the recommendations for any liberal to hate and plenty for any conservative to hate as well. But we have to stop thinking and acting as Democrats or Republicans, as liberals or conservatives. We need to start thinking as Americans; thinking of the national interest, putting aside our partisan and ideological differences, and thinking for once about the next generation of Americans and the crushing debt that we are leaving them.
It is thinking as liberals and Democrats, as conservatives and Republicans, that got us into this mess—each group protecting programs and spending that no longer work or that we simply can’t afford anymore, tax deductions and credits that no longer effectively serve their purpose or cost more than they are worth.
This is bitter medicine that no one likes. But it is medicine that will lead to curing a horrible fiscal disease that is eating away at our country and that threatens our future. There is plenty of pain for everyone in these recommendations, but the promise of a better future for our country is worth us all making sacrifices.
I eagerly wait to hear what the other 16 members of the deficit commission say, but I think we all need to put our partisan and ideological feelings aside and seriously consider passing much of what Simpson and Bowles have suggested.
In addition, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Debt Reduction Task Force will release its recommendations on Wednesday. This panel, chaired by former Senate Budget Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and former White House Office of Management and Budget Director Alice Rivlin, also deserves to be heard out in a serious manner.
We need to keep our minds open and not declare some things to be untouchable. Almost every spending program and tax exemption is considered untouchable by some. If we let the ideologues, the partisans, and the special interests determine what is untouchable, nothing will be touched and we will be consigning future generations to an America that we ourselves wouldn’t want to live in.
We need to remember that the more pain and sacrifice we avoid now, the more our children and grandchildren will face in the future. If the right things were done 10 or 20 years ago, the solutions would have been relatively simple and not particularly painful. Now it requires cutting to the bone.
I know that embracing these recommendations might cost me reelection in two years. But if I don’t push them, I am not worthy of the job or of the trust that you placed in me two years ago. I’d like to think that good policy makes good politics, but even if it doesn’t, even if it costs me my career, I am ready to pay that price.
I’d rather do the right thing and be a one-term president than shirk my responsibility and serve two terms. I’m a relatively young man and presumably will have to live a long life knowing that I had a chance but didn’t do what I knew would help the country most. I ask each of you to look at the numbers, look at the facts, and think about the crushing debt that we are leaving our children and grandchildren. Think about the national interest. Think about the sacrifices that previous generations have been asked to make and made.
I am asking the leadership of the new Congress and several former leaders of Congress from both parties to join me at Camp David to sit down and go through the full panel’s report, to consider it and work out a solution that will get us out of this mess. No cameras, no reporters. We need to roll up our sleeves and get it done. There is plenty of time for politics later. We need to be Americans first.
Whether your senators or House members are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals, ask them to put aside partisan and ideological interests and to look at these recommendations as Americans concerned about our country’s future. If we all sacrifice, if we all share the burden, we can save our country from the unspeakable consequences that are inevitable if we continue our present course.
Let’s do the right thing.
This article appears in the Nov. 16, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily.