Seventy-eight years ago this month, newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt told a weary nation, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
The next part of that speech is largely forgotten, but it contains the more essential advice for lawmakers today. Roosevelt warned fear often "paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance," and said, "In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory."
Leadership. Frankness. Vigor. President Roosevelt reminded his fellow citizens that, for a century and a half, American politicians had embodied these qualities. He said these qualities were still in need. I obviously don't agree with all of the solutions the Roosevelt administration proposed or signed into law. But I do acknowledge that he had the courage to lead in the face of great odds and great opposition.
Today, lawmakers in Washington face the threat of our time: a spiraling national debt, chronic overspending and long-term liabilities the public knows little about. The American taxpayers are drowning in red ink and the repercussions from years of deficits now threatens the entire U.S. economy.
Will elected officials today have the leadership, courage and vigor to face these problems?
If you pay attention to the news media, the answer is no. Journalists are currently obsessed with polls showing a seeming contradiction. Americans are worried about our fiscal situation. But when asked about detailed proposals to cut spending, their support wanes. Poll respondents instead want lawmakers to focus on cutting waste.
According to a recent poll by Public Notice and the Tarrance Group, because most believe the government wastes 42 cents of each dollar, 60 percent of likely voters believe federal budget problems can be fixed by simply eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
If Americans don't want big cuts or reforms, why should lawmakers pursue them?
Because they are necessary. I wish we could solve our budget problems by just tinkering around the edges. It's going to take more. Much more.
Our current leaders must lead. They need to start by having a very frank discussion with the American people about the true fiscal state of our nation. They must follow by exploring and proposing vigorous plans to reform the biggest portions of the budget, namely Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and, yes, we must look at waste in the Defense Department.
President Obama's deficit commission began acknowledging these problems last fall. Commission member and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has acknowledged cash-negative Social Security will be broke by 2037. He also acknowledged Medicare will go permanently cash negative in a decade. Commission member David Cote, the chief executive officer of Honeywell, said Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were going to "crush the system."
Conrad and Cote are right. Within the next decade, nondiscretionary programs including Social Security and Medicare and interest on the national debt will consume 90 cents of every federal tax dollar. That leaves a dime of every dollar left for every other priority, including defense, education and homeland security.
Unfortunately, members of Conrad's own party, including some in the White House, and the left-leaning establishment are trying to backtrack, saying Social Security is fine for the next several decades.
According to FactCheck.Org, "Social Security has passed a tipping point. For years it generated more revenue than it consumed, holding down the overall federal deficit and allowing Congress to spend more freely for other things. But those days are gone. Rather than lessening the federal deficit, Social Security has at last -- as long predicted -- become a drag on the government's overall finances."
Throughout my public life I've heard politicians say the issues facing these programs are too far down the road to tackle now. These remarks were simply a way for them to avoid the difficult choices necessary to reform and strengthen these programs.
Both parties are at fault, and they both must face up to the facts. If we don't have the courage and vigor to tackle these problems now, when the public's interest is so focused on our long-term financial issues, when will we?
I realize these numbers are daunting. They are so large and at times so unfathomable that it could be tempting to throw up our hands and say, "There is no solution to which we'll all agree, so why should we even try?"
So I remind them of President Roosevelt's caution: The only thing standing in the way of a solution is yourself. Have courage. Be a leader. Act.
Now is the time.
J.C. Watts (JCWatts01@jcwatts.com) is chairman of J.C. Watts Companies, a business consulting group. He is former chairman of the Republican Conference of the U.S. House, where he served as an Oklahoma representative from 1995 to 2002. He writes twice monthly for the Review-Journal.