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Politics

Obama's Chance To Be a Real Leader

The deficit debate may represent the best opportunity for Obama to rescue his presidency.

Since his “shellacking” on Election Day, President Obama has looked dangerously lost and uncertain, taking responsibility without admitting he made mistakes, and sending mixed signals on what he’ll do next. He’s been all over the map, for example, on extending the Bush tax cuts for high earners. He doesn’t seem to know whether to throw his weight behind Speaker Nancy Pelosi and fight harder for issues important to liberal Democrats or move to the center. And he had a pretty unsuccessful economic trip to Asia.

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Now comes what could be the start of a serious and important debate on bringing the budget deficit under control. If Obama takes a real leadership role and fulfills his 2008 campaign promise of working hard to bring the country together to solve our common problems, it will be hugely beneficial to the long-term economic security of the U.S. -- and to Obama’s reelection hopes. But that’s a pretty big if.

The catalyst can be the draft report by the president’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. There’s plenty not to like in the proposal of the two chairmen -- Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson -- and plenty of people don’t like it. Most Republicans hate the proposed tax hikes, which come in the form of ending or limiting existing tax breaks. Democrats say they can’t swallow the proposed cuts in the projected growth of Social Security and Medicare. Even nonpartisan budget experts aren’t happy. Stan Collender, a longtime private sector budget guru, complained in his blog and a follow-up e-mail that the chairmen offered nothing more than a laundry list of alternatives that don’t add up to a coherent plan.

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True enough, but that’s not the point. It’s only a draft that will be rewritten before the commission deadline of Dec. 1. Plus at least two other private nonpartisan panels are coming out with budget proposals that will offer alternatives.

The important thing is that it can be -- and should be -- the start of an adult conversation. The commission chairmen make it clear that the only way to make any real progress is to create a comprehensive package with a mix of spending cuts, entitlement cuts and tax increases. Their numbers show how silly it is to claim that eliminating earmarks and slashing the salaries of federal workers (all while cutting taxes further) is little more than a joke. So too is pandering to senior voters by pretending we can afford to take Social Security and Medicare off the table.

Now it’s up to Obama. He ought to use his once-famous but now-absent rhetorical skills to sit the American people down and drive the point home. He ought to emphatically embrace the GOP goal of lower deficits but call their bluff and challenge them to join him by presenting a real plan, one that is balanced and as fair as possible. And he ought to really lead Democrats from the get-go, not sit back and defer to them, as he did with the health care law. Above all, he has to get members of both parties thinking about 2025, not just Nov. 6, 2012.

Then Obama has to roll up his sleeves, invite everyone into the same room and keep them there until they get it, making sure that the American people are informed every step of the way. He has to present his own plan, and make anyone who doesn’t like it produce an alternative that is real and not one-sided. Above all, he has to make it clear that the U.S.’s future depends on solving this problem.

If Obama does all that, and nothing comes of it, then voters will have a real choice to make in 2012.

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