The United States is holding its collective breath as the nation hurtles towards the fiscal cliff and negotiations sputter. A cloud of uncertainty hangs over Washington as Congressional Republicans respond negatively to the White House's proposals and the president undertakes campaign style press events to try to force action on the issue. Being an optimist, I still predict something will get done this month, but that is far from certain. The country is waiting for Washington to move the debate beyond the current kabuki theater.
I have a humble suggestion for the president in order to break the log jam and give this debate a noble and unifying context. Next week, the president should schedule an address before a joint session of Congress so he can articulate to Congress and the American people what he can better than most, and provide us with a teachable moment by asking us all the important question, are we still a nation capable of sacrificing a little for the greater good?
The opaque nature of the dialogues and the complexity of the issues combine to make the American public feel lost as to what it will all mean for them. We need something to alter the nature of this debate, and provide not just the "how" but the "why" for the American people. The president must provide this for us, and lead us forward together. He must tell the American people that it is more than just raising taxes on the rich, or cutting entitlements and spending across the board. It is truly about the economic future of our country, and our ability to lead the world.
Now is the time for the president to call the American people to action. It is not a moment for an argument over which specific tax provision or federal program must go. After all, we have a good idea of what the long term solutions to this problem look like; something along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles or Domenici-Rivlin proposals, with a carefully balanced package of increased revenues and spending and entitlement reforms. This call to action would instead be a chance to tell the American people, in a thoughtful and nonpartisan way, why we need to act and reinforce that what we need to do is fair, balanced and in the best interests of our country. The specifics are less important than the rationale, and with this speech he could give us a unifying national purpose. This could be his moment, like President Kennedy's in 1961, to say, "ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country."
A nationally televised address before a joint session of Congress could motivate the American people, and through them their elected representatives, to make the necessary choices to face and overcome the specter of our fiscal demise. I fully recognize that this plan of action is not without risks for the president, but as our leader he is called to action to do risky things that have big rewards for the country and our political system.
Much has been made lately of the vast divides in our society between economic classes and political persuasions. These divisions must be overcome for us to move forward, and that is why President Obama must make this case directly to the American people. It must be a broader, unifying discussion of whether or not we live in a society where we are all willing to take part in shared sacrifice so the next generation can enjoy the same bright future Americans have come to expect. Were the president to take my suggestion, he would likely give his address in the House of Representatives, standing below Daniel Webster's words etched in the wall behind the speaker's chair. "Let us develop the resources of the land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests, and see whether we also, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered." That Webster quotation is an important call to action for our times, as well.