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A chance for Obama, Congress to lead

By Gloria Borger, CNN Senior Political Analyst
  • Gloria Borger: Deficit panel chairmen made clear importance of solving the problem
  • Borger says Americans lack faith that government can solve problems
  • Borger: Panel's report provides opportunity for President Obama and Congress
  • She says they can take the deficit problem seriously and tackle it

Editor's note: Gloria Borger is a senior political analyst for CNN, appearing regularly on CNN's "The Situation Room," "AC360°," "John King, USA" and "State of the Union."

Washington (CNN) -- It took just eight days after the election for the two deficit commission chairmen to pounce. And the title page of their draft version of budget cuts doesn't mince words: "The problem is real -- the solution is painful -- There's no easy way out -- Everything must be on the table -- and Washington must lead."

How's that for an idea: Washington must lead!

I know, I know. Washington is discredited, out of fashion, a part of the problem. But guess what? We've got a whole new crew of deficit-conscious members moving in soon, so they can get right to work. If they're serious about getting the deficit under control, this document should be their point of reference.

The reason is simple: It's serious. And by that, I mean it makes it perfectly clear that we can't grow our way out of the deficit nor can we make it go away by cutting waste, fraud and abuse. The problem is systemic, it's enormous, and it's urgent.

It's also an opportunity -- for new members to make their mark and for Democrats to let the public know they're listening to concerns about out-of-control spending.

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Predictably, liberals immediately pounced when the draft plan was revealed. Nancy Pelosi called it "simply unacceptable," as did some of her colleagues, largely for the Social Security and Medicare changes and for the size of the spending cuts.

Here's the good sign: The newly in charge House Republicans, by and large, held their fire. They didn't call the proposed tax changes unacceptable, nor did they come out blasting the proposed cutbacks in military spending. Ah, what a difference an election makes.

This was an honest document in which all sides were gored. Democrats can wail about the Social Security fixes, but they can't complain about this: The plan does not count the savings in Social Security as a way to reduce the overall deficit. Instead, the money saved goes right back into the Social Security trust fund -- so the liberals who have complained about balancing the budget on the backs of senior citizens can stop. And, yes, there are reductions in benefits -- reducing cost-of-living adjustments and some benefits, raising the retirement age gradually as well as subjecting those earning at the high end to more payroll tax. But if you actually want to save Social Security, what else can you do?

The tax side is no prettier. It contains a few different tax scenarios, including a couple that have been radioactive in the past: limiting or ending mortgage interest deductions, for instance. But in exchange, the commission offers something tempting: a reduction in rates to as low as 23 percent at the top end. Oh, and by the way, they're also talking about taxing employee health benefits.

As the commission co-chairmen, Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, warned: It ain't easy or pretty.

And it's not exactly being embraced by the commission members. Under the president's executive order, 14 of the 18 members need to approve something before it can go to the Congress for a vote. Right now, they don't have the votes for anything, but funny how these things change. And maybe their best bet is for a lame-duck Congress to tackle some of it -- if there's the time, or the will to do it.

And what does it say about Washington that some believe the best bet is to hand this hot potato to the members who have lost anyway?

President Obama created this panel, and its chairmen have done their work. He needs to say it, and let the American public know he heard their complaints about deficit spending. His spokesman said, "These ideas ... are only a step in the process."

But they're bold, with something for everyone to complain about. It's a serious effort, and should be applauded as such by the man who asked the commission to do real work.

In the president's recent "60 Minutes" interview, he acknowledged a failure of leadership: "... We were so busy and so focused on getting a bunch of stuff done that we stopped paying attention to the fact that leadership isn't just legislation. That it's a matter of persuading people."

Here's another chance. Less than one-quarter of the American public trusts the government to do what's right all or most of the time.

Here's an opportunity to prove them wrong.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gloria Borger.