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Partisans already are railing about the budget plans put forth by the GOP House and the Democratic Senate. Many Democrats characterize the proposal by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., as very harsh, protecting the wealthy from taxes while slashing health care and other social programs for the neediest Americans. Many Republicans vilify the plan presented by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., as a sham masquerading as a solution, one that increases rather than cuts spending, contains additional tax increases under our complex and outdated tax system and threatens to put America’s economy in free fall. Hyperbole aside, these budgets do represent vastly different approaches and philosophies.
But where many others see irresponsible proposals and irreconcilable differences, I see cause for hope. And the reason is simple: We now have actual plans to debate and, most important, an opportunity for the president to prove he can lead.
Murray’s plan is the first budget resolution produced by the Senate in almost four years. This failure to present the public with a blueprint for federal fiscal policy is an obvious abdication of responsibility. But at least the Senate intends to do its duty this time.
Similarly, the House plan puts the GOP on record as to where it stands. Unfortunately, both plans come up short in very familiar ways, with Republicans refusing to put sufficient revenue on the table and with Democrats balking at serious reform of our social insurance programs.
Irreconcilable? On the surface, yes. But politics is the art of compromise, even though this has been a neglected art in recent years. Ryan admits that Republicans can’t expect to get everything in his budget. The Democrats know they can’t get all that they want from theirs. These are opening bids, after all. The serious work of negotiation should now begin.
Which takes us to the absolutely critical role that President Barack Obama must play. The president did not come out of the gate well; in fact, he did not come out at all. He is more than six weeks late and still has not presented his budget. However, this failure of leadership can now be corrected, for Obama has the opportunity to lay out a plan that bridges the divide and then use the unique powers of his office to forge a compromise. That means the president’s budget shouldn’t be a highly partisan document that is dead on arrival. It has to acknowledge and offer a workable mix of tax revenue increases through comprehensive tax reform and meaningful spending cuts, including to social insurance programs.
The right deal will raise hackles on both sides of the aisle. That’s both inevitable and appropriate. It is also why selling the deal will take more than a charm offensive on Capitol Hill. It will require engaging the American people by telling them the truth about where both the House and Senate budgets fall short and what must happen to reach a meaningful and lasting solution.
Only the president is capable of rallying the public in this way because he alone has the bully pulpit. He can speak to the American people through televised speeches and press conferences, and by addressing audiences across the country. These are standard weapons in the presidential arsenal, and they are important to use.
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.