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A New Red Menace 

National debt is proving to be a formidable adversary.

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With the national debt ceiling reaching its limit, Congress and the President are headed toward a possible government shutdown. But we’re not the only country searching for reliable leadership in times of economic and international challenge.

President Obama submitted a $3.73 trillion budget for Fiscal Year 2012, the largest in American history with the largest one-year projected budget deficit in American history. He’s done so intentionally — and irresponsibly — increasing spending for many federal programs, knowing that House and Senate Republicans will take budget scissors to them; Obama will then be positioned to criticize Republicans for the cuts. It’s an old budget trick to score political points when election time rolls around.

We can expect a compromise toward lower spending in order to raise the debt ceiling beyond its current $14 trillion figure, even as the United States incurs continuing interest costs on the national debt at around $4 billion per day. But lower spending is only a start.

Foreign government shutdowns should concern Americans because they impact our country and its struggle to gain economic recovery, and they need American attention, too. Government disruptions in the Middle East led to higher energy prices this month, up sharply since Valentine’s Day, and they’re on the rise all over America for passenger cars, jet fuel, diesel fuel for trucks that service our economy, and all other gas-fired vehicles — and that means higher consumer prices for everyone.

We may eventually have $5 per gallon gasoline as oil-producing nations undergo disorder and American domestic production remains suppressed. On the home front, New Jersey, Indiana, Wisconsin and Ohio are in commotion stemming from the collision between fat government budgets, legislative overspending, high public sector wages and — as Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels correctly calls it — the new Red Menace: Debt (Red Ink).

Red ink colors the federal government, too, and will result in political conflict in the nation’s capital this year. The Obama budget proves that the president doesn’t intend to lead the nation against the Red Menace. Neither he nor Congress shows much courage to reform entitlement spending (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs, which consume two-thirds of the federal budget) anytime soon.

When Obama picked the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — led by Erskine Bowles, a prominent and respected North Carolina Democrat, and former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson — it was assumed that panel members from both parties would craft something worth acting upon — and they did.

But Obama has largely ignored those recommendations, playing it safe politically by avoiding even a suggestion that entitlements might be adjusted now in order to save them for future generations. That’s weak presidential leadership.

Discretionary spending — about one-third of the federal budget — is the subject of today’s debate over spending cuts. Republicans proposed $60 billion in cuts, with some members wanting to cut $100 billion this year. Look for the final figure to be closer to $60 billion. That’s not small change, but it’s only a fraction of federal spending at the $3.7 trillion annual budget level.

Yes, it’s difficult to tell constituents dependent on federal program payments that they must be cut or eliminated, but that’s the job of leaders in these days when fiscal restraint is imperative. Few elected officials will have the courage to seriously return federal spending to levels that balance the budget without huge tax increases. The so-called “earmark reform,” touted by some members as politically courageous, was a symbolic gesture and only accounts for a tiny percentage of federal discretionary spending. Voters will be seeking courageous and experienced leaders in 2012.

But the greatest leadership failure rests with President Obama. Silent in the face of brutality in Libya, and its anti-American leader, Obama failed to give hope to oppressed people in Middle Eastern nations yearning for freedom from dictatorships and economic inequities. He fails to articulate coherent U.S. policies toward Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, Egypt or any other hot spot in the world.

Obama weighed in early on the Wisconsin fight over state indebtedness but couldn’t quite muster the courage to condemn Libya’s dictator. Notice how he’ll speak out forcefully only after leaders of other nations have taken strong stands. The president is either too frightened to act, doesn’t know what to do, or is so politically self-conscious that he believes doing nothing is sufficiently inoffensive to cost him votes.

In any event, weak presidential leadership is consequential. America’s debt condition is suppressing job creation, rising energy costs due to Middle East turmoil are quietly taxing consumers, and looming inflation caused by an ineffective “stimulus” plan and Fed actions will soon be felt by Americans facing a flat economy. If conditions don’t markedly improve, voter anger and frustration against all public officials will predominate in 2012.

Government shutdowns often result from unjust and irresponsible governments, corrupt public officials, miserable economic conditions and failed leadership. With Obama sobered by the 2010 election results, we can only hope that the right changes are coming in the United States — in the form of fiscal accountability, public insistence on international leadership by America’s president, and leaders who will adopt job-creating policies and spend tax dollars wisely.

Government shutdowns at home can be avoided only if strong leaders step forward and take strong stands for a strong America.

George Nethercutt is a former congressman who represented the 5th District of Washington state.

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