Dear Mr. President: Don't punt on debt

obama_pained.gi.top.jpgObama should call for a "budget summit," argues columnist Maya MacGuineas. Lock the players in a room and don't let them out until they agree on a plan. By Maya MacGuineas, CNNMoney guest columnist


Commentary: Maya MacGuineas is the director of the fiscal policy program at the New America Foundation.

Big speech, tonight, sir. I have a plea: Focus on large and specific proposals to truly fix the budget. Please.

First, let me say, you certainly have had to govern through some trying times not of your making.

You had to figure out what to do with the TARP bailout and how to fix the banks. When you took office, the economy was tanking and clearly needed additional stimulus on top of what the Bush administration had passed. And then there are the trillion dollar deficits.

That's a pretty short straw to pick.

But here we are. Whether or not it's a political winner, we both know that some pretty dramatic measures are needed to turn this fiscal ship around. And leadership on this issue has to start at the top. So here you are.

This is the year we need to put in place a plan to fix the budget. The longer we wait, the more likely that markets will doubt our ability to get ahead of this problem. Once our lenders show signs of skittishness, it will be too late.

I know that you would much rather concentrate on other important issues. But there is little fiscal room right now to work on education, infrastructure and next generation technologies.

You are under immense pressure from the far left to not focus on the budget. All we have to do is wait it out, and then raise a bunch of taxes down the road, they argue. And, I know, those groups that say "leave Social Security alone" can be awfully aggressive. (Take the CNNMoney Social Security quiz)

Then there are the House Republicans, who don't see the reality that revenues have to be part of the equation. In fact, they now also seem to be in denial about the need for major entitlement reforms.

So, fair to say, you are not getting any help from either end of the spectrum.

That's where tonight comes in. If you make the case that we need to tackle the budget challenges in a serious and bipartisan manner, I believe you will have the vast majority of the country with you.

The public has been waiting for leadership on this issue for many years. So it won't be news to them that we have to address the budget.

True, there is disagreement on the right mix of changes, such as spending versus taxes or defense versus Social Security.

But "free lunch" solutions that pretend we can either cut taxes or spend more on certain investments to grow our way out of the problems ring so hollow it is laughable.

And you might as well go big. Sure, we could approach the task incrementally. We could start with symbolic moves like cutting Capitol Hill office budgets and eliminating a few outdated programs. Then we could move on to cutting bigger items and gradually tackle entitlements and tax reform.

We might get all that done before credit markets run out of patience. But we might not.

Furthermore, ironically, it would probably be easier to get a deal if you put all the budget pieces in play.

You should use the fiscal commission's bipartisan plan, which has become the new gold standard for budget fixes by saving nearly $4 trillion over a decade. After all, the commission was your idea! Its report offers a balanced path that would reassure investors and help the economic recovery. The panel's co-chairs, Erskine Bowles and Allan Simpson, put everything on the table and demonstrated that, politically, bipartisan compromise is possible.

Build on this momentum. Using the commission's work as a starting point will focus the national discussion on all the parts of the budget that have to be part of the solution. It also provides you with political cover.

Second, declare that, as a national priority, you and Congress must work together until this problem is resolved. Invite the leaders of Capitol Hill from both parties to join you for a "budget retreat" where you agree to keep on working until a plan is developed. Lock the doors, order in, and hammer out the necessary compromises.

Yes, that is a pretty aggressive approach. But we both know that the longer this drags out, and the closer we get to the 2012 campaign, the harder it will get.

This is one of those moments where you can change the national direction. I hope you will take this opportunity, because the last thing we need on the budget is more of the same. Oh yeah, and I hope that when we look up into the balcony, we see Bowles and Simpson waving from above.  To top of page

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