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USA Today - Obama Needs to Take Charge on Debt Reduction

Op-Ed

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Date:
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U.S. Senator John Cornyn

Debates over U.S. government debt are as old as America itself.
When the first Congress took office in 1789, our country was grappling with a mountain of financial obligations. But within five years, writes historian John Steele Gordon, we had "the highest credit rating in Europe," and a French diplomat marveled that U.S. bonds were "safe and free from reverses."

Sadly, our fiscal reputation is no longer so pristine. It will continue to decline unless we break the cycle of deficits that has made our gross national debt larger than the entire U.S. economy.

Our debt has increased by nearly $6 trillion since President Obama entered the White House and it is projected to increase by another $9.5 trillion over the next decade. Yet the president stubbornly refuses to show the leadership necessary to get our long-term finances under control.

President Obama always talks about a "balanced approach" to debt reduction but he hasn't done much to support a balanced approach, despite having numerous opportunities. He could have adopted the blueprint offered by his own bipartisan fiscal commission. But he ignored it. Alternatively, he could have embraced the strategy outlined by House Republicans. But he ignored that plan, too.

The president doesn't seem to appreciate the urgency of the moment. He doesn't seem to appreciate that our country is headed for a real crisis.
Republicans have shown that we are willing to support a budget that reduces our long-term debt. But the only way America will make real progress on debt reduction is if President Obama follows suit. Unfortunately, he seems allergic to genuine bipartisan compromises.

Until the Obama Administration, virtually every landmark domestic-policy change in modern U.S. history was achieved with bipartisan support. For example, both the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act were signed by a Democratic president and endorsed by a large majority of Senate Republicans. The 1996 Welfare Reform Act signed by President Clinton was backed by every single member of the GOP Senate caucus, along with a majority of Senate Democrats.

Likewise, during the Reagan years, most Senate Democrats voted for the 1983 Social Security Amendments, and a whopping 94% of Senate Democrats voted for the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Under President George W. Bush, 84% of Senate Democrats voted for the No Child Left Behind Act.
In other words, presidents have traditionally understood that reform and results take leadership.

Yet President Obama doesn't seem to care. He prefers to play the blame game -- giving speeches and knocking down straw men -- rather than do something about our skyrocketing debt. In short: he takes the easy way out.
Real debt reduction will require real presidential leadership -- the kind of leadership that President Clinton displayed in 1993, when he convinced 47% of Senate Democrats and 40% of House Democrats to defy the unions and support the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Since then, U.S. trade with Canada has nearly tripled and U.S. trade with Mexico has increased almost sixfold.)

My hope is that President Obama will show the kind of leadership we have seen throughout our nation's history. He has acknowledged that no amount of tax increases could sustain Medicare in its present form. He has also said that public officials who are concerned about preserving government assistance for the elderly and the needy "have an obligation" to reform our entitlement programs and ensure their long-term viability. Yet he has done little to act on his own words, choosing instead to demagogue GOP reform efforts.

Thus, Washington keeps spending money we don't have and saddling our children with more debt. Meanwhile, our safety-net programs are spiraling toward a collapse that would leave the poor and the elderly even more vulnerable. It's time for President Obama to move beyond the partisan rhetoric, drop the gimmicks and do what's right for our country.


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