11/16/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Jan 15, 2013

Will the Public Buy Into a Budget Deal -- and What Questions Will They Have?

So let's say that President Obama and enough members of Congress avoid the "fiscal cliff" and finally agree on a budget deal--one that puts us on a sustainable path over the long haul. Will voters applaud, or will our country see the kind of turmoil that has swept through Greece and Spain? It's something Senator Saxby Chambliss thinks about. "You could see riots in the streets of the United States if we don't do this right," he said last week.

Most coverage of the "fiscal cliff" treats the issue almost exclusively as a problem of dealmaking in Washington, but what about the rest of us? We'll all have to live with higher taxes and budget cuts. On the face of it at least, most Americans say they want the problem fixed, and many have been angered by leaders' unwillingness to compromise so far. During the 2011 debt ceiling debate, 82 percent of Americans said the protracted leadership discussions were "mostly about gaining political advantage"―not about "doing what was best for the country." Recent polls show that most Americans want lawmakers "to be willing to compromise even if they strike a deal you disagree with."

But the devil is perpetually in the details. Polls also repeatedly show that large swaths of Americans haven't confronted the trade-offs that will almost certainly be part of any budget deal. A Pew Research Center survey in October presented a dozen ideas on controlling the debt and deficit, but the only ones that had majority support were raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year (64 percent) and limiting corporate tax deductions (58 percent). That's a start. But most budget experts say those two steps won't be nearly enough, even as surveys show there's little appetite for budget cuts, broader tax increases, or changes in Social Security and Medicare.

That's a tough audience for leaders presenting a budget deal that will surely contain something to upset nearly everyone. Is there a way to help Americans understand more of the fiscal choices that we face? What happens when typical citizens themselves wrestle with the tough choices? If people can't have everything they personally want, what really matters most?

Actually, in this case, we do have a preview--one that could help leaders build public will for the hard choices to come. Over the last year, typical citizens in communities nationwide have deliberated about the country's options for dealing with the debt in meetings hosted by the nonpartisan National Issues Forums (NIF ). Both of us have been involved with NIF over the years. It's an amazing network of local educational, community, and service institutions that regularly convenes people to discuss pressing issues. From fall 2011 through summer 2012, Americans of all ages and from all walks of life met in their communities to talk through the pros and cons of ideas such as reducing defense spending, passing a balanced budget amendment, cutting business taxes, and investing in research to spur the economy.

The NIF forums aren't a random sample of public opinion, but they may capture something just as important--the views of people who are interested enough in the debt to attend a meeting to talk about it, and who are still open-minded. Remember how important those undecided voters were in the general election? On the debt, the views of people like the NIF participants could be equally pivotal.

Surprisingly―and this is probably good news for lawmakers --very few NIF participants came to the forums with non-negotiable items on their agenda, and most were open to a range of solutions. In fact, the idea that tackling the debt would involve steps they didn't like personally was pretty much baked into their thinking. The specifics mattered less than the overall shape of the solution.

But people did have questions ―questions President Obama and Congressional leaders need to be ready to answer.

One question was about the nature of "shared sacrifice," which most participants saw as the best way to approach the debt problem. And luckily, many participants seemed less worried about themselves than they were about others. Their anxiety extended beyond traditionally vulnerable groups like the poor, elderly, and those with disabilities. Many repeatedly voiced concerns about Americans who got whipsawed in the recession. One woman put it this way: "Some people lost a lot. They lost a lot of their IRA money. They lost money they were going to use to send their kids to school. They lost just money that they could have used, and so I think that here, when you talk about any program that's going to involve shared sacrifice . . . that has got to be addressed."

People also wanted to know how solutions to stabilize the debt will affect the economy. NIF participants, like many in Washington, often struggled with what they saw as two equally-urgent priorities--stemming the red ink and protecting a still fragile economy. For many, this was the most troubling and confusing trade-off discussed. Prominent economists have been debating furiously about how to balance the two goals, but expert debates about "excess capacity" in the economy fly right over the heads of most people. To feel comfortable with a debt deal, many Americans will want concrete explanations and reassurance on this point. Somebody's got to be explainer-in-chief on this, if not Bill Clinton himself, then somebody else.

America's leaders have some tough days ahead, and honestly, we wish them well. But even with all they have to do, we hope they will invest some time thinking about how to help typical citizens understand the choices our country faces.

If the NIF forums are any guide, this country can avoid most of the bitter public outcry that's emerged in Europe. But that depends on leaders here deciding to take Americans' core principles seriously and answering their questions clearly, frankly, and with respect.