Truth or Consequences

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas

Obama's only real hope to be an effective president and secure his legacy: talk straight about the looming economic disaster facing the country.

Two years into his presidency, Barack Obama remains a remote, even mysterious figure. It's not that he isn't familiar. If anything, he is over-exposed, a common sight on TV, speaking about this or that. But for all his constant presence, he is oddly irrelevant. He isn't a failure: Obama's mid-40s approval ratings, while lower than Dwight Eisenhower's ever were, are at least twice as high as those of Congress. But he's not a success, either. Although Obama has passed a massive health-care bill and finance reform in the last year, both bills are unpopular, among many experts as well as the citizenry--most of whom (the experts as well as the citizens) barely understand what the bills contain.

Should Obama try harder to play the Washington game? Be more of an LBJ or Bill Clinton? Temperamentally, he has little in common with either man; he is not a natural schmoozer or arm-twister. And even if he were, engaging the world of Washington pols and fixers and talking heads is an invitation to futility. Washington these days seems preoccupied with trivial pursuit and partisan advantage. Earlier this fall a legislator took me to peek into the senators' private dining room, where the solons can meet for lunch without the distraction of staff or anyone else. The cozy, ornate room used to be common ground for bipartisan friendship and dealmaking. On this Wednesday in September, with Congress in session, the table set, the soup hot on the table, the chamber was empty. "No one ever comes," explained the senator. "They're at their party caucuses or raising money."

Obama now has an opportunity to transcend this dispiriting scene, to reach beyond Washington and get the nation's attention. Last week the chairmen of the National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform offered a proposal to save the country from economic disaster--to face up to the country's looming and crippling national debt by raising taxes and cutting entitlements. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi immediately dismissed the plan as "unacceptable," but Obama counseled patience. "Before anybody starts shooting down proposals, I think we need to listen, we need to gather up all the facts," he said. "If we are concerned about debt and deficits, then we're going to have to take actions that are difficult and we're going to have to tell the truth to the American people."

Now Obama needs to follow his own advice. His only hope to be an effective president, to secure his legacy, is to tell the whole truth about the deficit, the debt, and the only real way out--to be, as he put it, "straight" with the voters.

There may not be a single political professional in Washington who would agree with this advice. I've never met one. Generally, the suggestion that a politician call for tax increases and cuts in Social Security and Medicare is greeted with hoots of derision. Everyone seems to recall the last presidential candidate who called for a general tax increase (Walter Mondale in 1984) and what happened to him (he lost 49 states). But being honest about the real choices is the only way Obama can break through the noise and chatter. It is also absolutely necessary to save the country from very hard times ahead, or at the very least a steadily declining standard of living. Obama needs to start by explaining the mess we're in.

The best place to begin is to understand the gap between the money that the feds take in as revenue and the money that the government spends--for defense, or welfare benefits, or anything else. The simplest, most meaningful measure is revenues and outlays as a percentage of the economy. For the past 30 years or so, federal taxes have amounted to about 18 percent of the economy, and federal expenditures have equaled about 20 percent. The difference, the federal deficit, has been large but manageable. …