01/23/2011 01:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Real State of the Union

This is the time of year when pundits suggest words for the president's State of the Union address. Always a chancy venture, it is even more so with this president's oratorical skills. So let us abstain from that. Instead, let us simply address the state of our union and then critique the president after his January 25 presentation.

For as long as I can remember, the president has included the ritual phrase "The State of the Union is strong" which is followed by audience applause. But the state of the union is not strong. It is precarious. This is not because of crazy calls for State nullification or secession. It is because we are facing massive economic problems approaching crisis levels and have yet to demonstrate that we have the political cohesion to address them in an adult manner.

Economically we are slowly, painfully slowly, climbing out of the hole known as the "Great Recession." A consistent unemployment rate above nine percent combined with underemployment almost as large has devastated lives and diminished hope for millions. We are a troubled nation questioning whether we can recapture the American Dream. The short-term imperative is to create jobs and grow the economy. The long-term imperative is to slow and reverse the spiraling national debt. The trick is to time measures for the long term without derailing the short-term goals.

But we are a conflicted nation. There is no consensus on how to achieve either of these short or long-term goals. And the political rhetoric has become so angry, the level of vitriol so high, that we seem not to be able to have a civil conversation about how to address our urgent problems.

Yes, there are signs of hope. Private sector job growth seems to be accelerating while jobless claims are dropping, and the housing market may have hit bottom. The sobering effects of the Tucson shootings and their aftermath seem to have softened the political climate and raised the possibility of a more civil public discourse, at least for a while. Americans are a hopeful people by nature and these glimmers of hope may be enough to lift our spirits and bring us to a common purpose.

The compromises during the "lame duck" session are also portends of a new spirit of bipartisanship. But it is easier to agree to spread benefits, which is what was done then, than to agree how to share sacrifice in the future. And sacrifices there must be if we are to address the long-term deficit issue.

The reaction to President Obama's bi-partisan Deficit Reduction Commission is instructive. Their overall recommendations and their presentation of the problems we face were generally greeted with approval. The reaction to specific recommendations can best be described as "Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die." Not a single recommendation gained majority support. And that was before liberals began mobilizing to oppose any cuts in social programs and conservatives ramped up their efforts to stop any tax increases. And all the other special and not so special interest groups will mobilize to oppose changes in tax treatment of home interest deductions, employer health care, charitable contributions, and a plethora of other benefits in the tax code. Absent leadership, gridlock will continue and the nation will drift toward disaster.

What is needed is for some, hopefully most, candidates for federal office in 2012, especially the presidential candidates to begin to tell the American people the magnitude of our current economic difficulties and how they would propose to address them. There can be no promises of easy fixes or painless solutions. There can be nothing left off the discussion table. And there must be sacrifice, major sacrifice to get our economic house in order.

Here is the hard part. The candidates, especially the presidential candidates, must put in front of the voters their plan to share the needed sacrifice. Where would you cut? What would you freeze? How would you raise additional revenue? What is the timeline? Not just generalities, specifics. Conventional wisdom says this approach is suicidal for any candidate. But not addressing these issues in the 2012 election cycle may well be suicidal for the nation.

If, and it is a big if, the long term economic plight of the nation and the specific proposals to address the issue become the focus of the next election, we may emerge with a consensus of how to move forward in a spirit of shared sacrifice. If that happens, the president standing before Congress in January 2013 may be able to accurately say, "The State of the Union is Strong."