But to ensure that the president’s outreach truly results in educating the public, I’d like to suggest he take a page from the Clinton presidency. When Bill Clinton needed to rally the nation behind Social Security reform, he participated — along with administration officials, bipartisan congressional leaders and policy experts, including myself — in public forums that discussed the issues openly and honestly with a representative cross-section of Americans. This engagement of the public involved nonpartisan proposals that represented real compromise between the parties, and most experts agree that had the Monica Lewinsky scandal not intervened, we would have seen Social Security reform become a reality in 1999.
Similarly, Obama could take part in several public forums where the hard truths are laid out and explained by respected nonpartisan experts. Elected officials would then observe how the public reacts and could comment after the facts have been presented and the public has expressed its views. In this way, the American people would realize that a sincere effort were under way, that elected officials want to hear their views, and that partisanship might finally giving way to principle and leadership.
Time is quickly running out on us, however. The president has set a deadline of this summer to reach a deal because he knows full well that 2014 is an election year, with the presidential race kicking into gear the following year. The grand bargain we need to reach won’t be possible once politicians are back in full campaign mode. And the truth is, we can’t afford to miss this chance. The time to act is now.
For this reason, the “spring break” that our senators and members of Congress are just beginning should be the last break they take until they have reached a fiscal grand bargain deal. And when they’re away from Washington, they should spend time with their constituents, discussing these critical issues and listening to what the people have to say. Without question, the American people can handle the truth. And once they know the full truth, and understand the stakes and the solutions, they will insist on the leadership from Washington that has been lacking for far too long.
David M. Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general, is CEO of the Comeback America Initiative.