02/20/2011 06:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leadership at the Tipping Point -- The Debt and a Time for Shared Sacrifice

The conventional wisdom is that everyone wants to cut the debt and the deficit, as long as it means somebody else has to suffer. The conventional wisdom is wrong. Americans are willing to sacrifice. They know that sacrifice is required. They're just waiting for someone with the courage to ask.

Since politicians love to say they need to do what the majority wants, consider these majority requests, from a January 15-19, 2011 CBS News/New York Times Poll:

• To reduce the federal deficit, will it be necessary to cut back on government programs that benefit people like you? Necessary: 55%
• If you had to choose a way to address the fact that Medicare takes in less than it costs to pay benefits, would you reduce benefits or raise taxes? Raise taxes: 64%
• Do you think it is necessary to take immediate action to lower the budget deficit or do you think it's possible to wait for better economic times? Immediate Action: 56%

It is unlikely that such results would have shown up in polls even a few years ago, so we may well be at a tipping point -- where public opinion has matured enough to give strong support for significant action. But there is a problem. Few in Congress or the White House want to be the first to propose what needs to be done. Listen to the president discussing the need for long-term debt and deficit reduction at a recent press conference: "...this is not a matter of "You go first" or "I go first." This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn't tip over. And I think that can happen."

The president may be politically astute, but is that leadership? The same could be said of Republicans in Congress, who were quick to condemn the president's budget for not going far enough but much less quick in saying what they would do beyond the $100 billion they are still struggling to find this year.

Once again, let's look at what the majority wants, this time from a September 22-October 3, 2010 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll:

• "Do you think your own representative in Congress SHOULD BE more interested in doing what's best for the country or what's best for your own congressional district where you live?" - What's best for the country: 58%

No doubt you could construct a somewhat different argument by cherry-picking other poll results, but the point is that the American people are not fools. They know that they and their country have been on a spending spree, that it has to stop, and that their children and grandchildren will pay the price if they don't get their proverbial house in order. These data suggest that they're willing to be led in that direction and that they are willing to sacrifice. They only ask two things. First, someone has to lead. Second, the sacrifices should be fair, which means shared.

On the first topic, it's time for politicians to stop selling and start serving. In constant campaign mode, elected officials of both parties have marketed themselves by being against big, costly government, against debt, against deficits. Not that they're in office, it's time to actually demonstrate the courage they sold on the stump. If they wait to work out deals in private so they can cover themselves politically, they'll probably get re-elected but the dramatic change we need in our fiscal behavior may come too little, too late, or not at all. In six months, we'll be into the next re-election cycle, and those are not known for yielding tough decisions and compromise. Politicians should sacrifice themselves for the public good. Their courage in telling hard truths is more important than their re-election. That's what public service is about.

On the second topic, it's time for politicians to ask all Americans to sacrifice. So far, the individuals asked have been mostly the low income, the disadvantaged and government workers. That won't be enough. Those are easy pickings -- because they lack the political clout to object. Until we ask the middle, upper-income and wealthiest Americans to pay their share -- including elected officials themselves -- we won't produce the fairness needed to build support and get the job done. Americans demand fairness, as they should, and they will be willing to sacrifice only if others are contributing at least proportionally to their means. Until politicians spread the pain, Americans will be looking around for who else got a free pass and will demand that they deserve one too. This kind of leadership also takes courage. That's what public service is about.

When Abraham Lincoln reflected on his Second Inaugural, in which he told the nation -- North and South -- that the Civil War was God's punishment for their joint complicity in slavery, he told his friend, Thurlow Weed, that "[I]t is a truth which I thought needed to be told." He knew the nation didn't want to hear it, but he sacrificed himself (a few weeks later, with his life) to tell them. Even more importantly, he offered a consoling and unifying message -- "with malice toward none, with charity for all" -- that still rings in our ears as symbolic of what we as a nation can accomplish and expect of each other, one hundred and fifty years later. It was a tipping point, and Lincoln led.

Leadership at our tipping point demands similar forthrightness and courage. When we get it, the nation will respond. We have looked fondly in recent years on "the greatest generation," the one that fought World War II and brought us the peace. We marvel at and bless them for their sacrifices, which we now benefit from. But they needn't be the last "greatest generation." It's time for us to step up. It's time for our leaders to ask us to.