In this time of emergency, President Obama needs to add a word to his working vocabulary: sacrifice.
Sacrifice is an important American tradition that embraces the virtues of patriotism, puts national interest ahead of self-interest, and encourages everyone to share the burden in perilous times.
President Kennedy's call for sacrifice in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country," earned universal praise. It was a declaration for Americans to sacrifice to win the Cold War and the emerging space competition with the Soviet Union.
During World War II, President Roosevelt asked Americans to accept their individual responsibility, from putting their lives at risk in battle to accepting food and gas rationing to collecting tin cans that would be recycled for the war effort. The spirit of the messages that flooded his office, he said, is, "What more can I do to help my country in winning this war?"
After September 11, 2001, when President George W. Bush had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to summon the nation to sacrifice in addressing its energy, education and fiscal problems, he foolishly advised the country to go shopping.
In Washington, a lame-duck session of Congress has begun with an agenda that includes a looming battle over the extension of the Bush-era personal income tax cuts.
This is the moment for President Obama to call for sacrifice, the moment to tell the nation he is going to let all of the tax cuts expire; not just the tax cuts for the wealthy, the tax cuts for all of us. He should tell the Congress that he will veto a bill that extends any part of the tax cuts. This is an executive decision. It is one of the few he can take without approval of Congress.
The president can use the bully pulpit of his office to say we all are in this financial crisis together and letting the tax cuts expire across the board is a sacrifice we all can make. Everyone will share in our national pain. He can explain this as a necessary step that will reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade.
It is hard to ask Americans to accept higher personal income tax rates in difficult times. If the tax cuts were to expire, the rates that would be effective in 2011 are not onerous. They are rates by which Americans paid income taxes during the 1990s, when the economy was doing well and the government was moving toward a balanced budget.
For many Americans, Barack Obama's election was uplifting. He represented the hope of restoring the country's virtues of civility, innovation and compromise. The president has struggled with these ideals against the partisanship that has gripped our government. He understands that America's greatness is at risk and that the Washington gridlock is contributing to this. Asking each of us who pays income taxes to share in the sacrifice is a necessarily bold act he can take now that will make a difference.
President Obama has at his command an eloquence to engage Americans in a discussion about why we must sacrifice now. He can go out across in the country to make his case in town meetings, asking citizens for their ideas about how we can sacrifice to get our deficit under control and our country back on the right track. He can use his political skills to begin a movement, as the columnist David Brooks has urged, that would be organized around love of country. It is a movement that would once again elevate sacrifice as a noble American virtue and inspire citizens to ask what they can do to help.
This post originally appeared at Nieman Watchdog.