In polling done by Gallup in August, 31 percent of the electorate approved of President Obama's handling of the federal budget deficit and 64 percent disapproved, which was Obama's second-lowest rating out of 13 issues polled. Congress hasn't fared much better, even though 70 percent of those polled by the Pew Research Center in July thought that it was "very important" for Congress to pass legislation to reduce the deficit. To most voters, it's not a question of if—but of when, where, and how much.
The recent draft proposals from the chairmen of the National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as the president's deficit-reduction commission, brought a noticeable silence from both Republicans and the White House. If they were smart, chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson would view this as an opportunity to launch a public education campaign and start speaking out about the depth of the problem facing us and the importance of taking carefully considered, bipartisan action to put America back on the road to fiscal responsibility. Here's what they should do:
Learn from the recent past. Everyone in Washington should take a lesson from the healthcare and financial regulation battles: Proposals should be short, posted online, and understandable to the public. No more 2,000-page bills, written in secret. Never again should a lawmaker say, "We have to pass the bill so you can find out what's in it," as Speaker Nancy Pelosi did before the healthcare reform vote.
Name a deficit czar. We've got czars for everything from ethics to Asian carp; why not one for the most important issue facing the next generation? This one should have a West Wing office and do nothing but work on getting legislation passed with a bipartisan vote. My nominee: outgoing Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. He's a Blue Dog Democrat from a swing state, with credibility on the Hill. Plus he's smart, telegenic, and a fiscal conservative who can speak to both sides. [Read more about the deficit and national debt.]
Get everybody inside the tent. The deficit commission should sponsor a series of corporate-style retreats that bring together the major players in town: small-business groups, unions, state governors, the AARP, big and small banks, and grassroots organizations ranging from MoveOn.org to the Comeback America Initiative. The Healthy Florida Foundation did something similar before the state passed its healthcare reform law, and most of the major stakeholders were on board before the bill came to a vote. Some of the big Washington think tanks might even sponsor it.
Fireside podcasts. Republicans and the president should conduct a series of easily shareable digital "fireside chats" to lay out the consequences of doing nothing, while also explaining and defending their course of action. Make the ideas come alive, call for shared sacrifice in a time of crisis, and appeal to the best in Americans. If they really want to do it right, they should hire the research team that helped journalist Tom Brokaw with The Greatest Generation.
A 42/43 roadshow. Former Presidents Bill Clinton (42) and George W. Bush (43) were well-received on Haiti relief. Now they should go on the road to talk about reining in entitlements and building a leaner, more efficient government. They have a unique perspective on how we got into this mess in the first place and what needs to be done to fix it. And while neither has grandchildren, they probably are hoping to soon. They could speak to baby boomers' concerns for the future of their children and grandchildren. [See a photo gallery of George W. Bush's legacy.]
Meet young people where they are. The deficit commission should bring in the heads of social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to figure out ways to get support for fiscal responsibility to go viral. They've already done something similar by connecting young people interested in community service through social networking sites; volunteerism will become even more crucial in the coming era of limited government. It's time to hook kids on the idea that the best solutions to society's challenges often come from young volunteers like them. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the economy.]
Make it fun. Deficit reduction isn't exactly a barrel of monkeys, but maybe we could lighten it up a bit. The New York Times recently released an iPhone and iPad app designed to work like a puzzle, entitled "You Balance the Budget." It was created with the help of the commission and experts from both sides of the aisle. The deficit commission, the White House, and the various GOP websites should drive traffic to it and encourage Americans to send in their good ideas. Why do Sudoku on the subway when you can balance the federal budget?
Act like a CEO. In the last two years, every CEO in America has had to call in senior management and tell them it's time to cut expenses by 10 percent and, if they can't find a way to do it, we'll find someone else who can. The president should do the same with the Cabinet: request 10 percent spending cuts from every agency—including defense—either across the board or targeted at certain programs, their choice. If they can't find a way to do that by January's State of the Union address, we'll find someone else who can. Everyone who has had to cut a monthly budget, either at home or the office, would certainly understand.
This election proved that the electorate is engaged, with high numbers of voters telling pollsters that they were paying close attention, particularly to economic issues. Our leaders need to give the public what it's looking for: workable solutions, presented in common-sense language, that will get our country back on track. Those who care are hungry for it, and those who don't need to hear it before it's too late.