President Obama's second inaugural address will be full of lofty sentiments and promises to move us forward. But I'd like to suggest that instead of eloquent and uplifting rhetoric, the president do something unexpected and brave. What if he actually spoke frankly to the American people about the sacrifices that are needed from all of us if we are to secure our future and salvage our character?
During the presidential campaign, the president said a lot about the need for the wealthy among us to pay their "fair share" in taxes. Bolstered by his electoral victory, he was able to win concessions by Republicans in the form of tax increases. Wealthier Americans will pay higher tax rates on income and investments. And everyone who works has already seen his or her payroll taxes go back up to their previous rate of 12.4 percent beginning Jan. 1 (half of which is deducted from paychecks and half sent directly to the IRS from the employer on the employee's behalf).
But taxes aren't the only -- or best -- way for us to share in the sacrifices necessary for the country to get back on the right path. The truth is, we've become an entitlement nation. President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans, "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." But lately it seems many of us care more about the former than the latter.
Seniors feel entitled to automatic increases in their Social Security checks, even if their actual cost of living goes up less than the Consumer Price Index for urban wage earners, which is what adjustments are made on now. They want better drug coverage and limitless access to doctors, even if it's for the sniffles or minor aches and pains. And virtually all seniors think they've already paid for these entitlements through their payroll and Medicare taxes, even though the average retiree today will receive $72,000 more in benefits than he contributed into the system.
The middle class wants small class sizes for their school-age children, paid for the Uncle Sam or their local government -- even though research shows little to no direct relationship between educational achievement and smaller class size. Instead of saving for kids go to college, many families now depend on government loans at low interest rates. The middle class also wants to keep their deductions for interest on their home mortgage loans, and if they get behind in their payments they want to be bailed out by the government.
The unemployed want benefits to extend for months -- combined state and federal benefits for some workers in 2013 will cover 73 weeks of unemployment. Not only does this discourage people from looking for work until their benefits are about to run out, but it hurts workers' chances of finding jobs the longer they're out of the workforce.
And more and more Americans now qualify for programs that once existed to help the poor or disabled, including food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and Medicaid. In some states, food stamp recipients include families whose incomes are over 200 percent of poverty. More alarmingly, a recent Senate study of those on SSDI, found that 25 percent of the supposedly disabled had conflicting, absent or contradictory evidence of their disability. Drug abuse and alcoholism that interfere with the ability to work make many people eligible for SSI, SSDI and food stamps. Congress has tried to prevent benefits going to those who are currently abusing drugs or alcohol; but those restrictions don't work well, and the number of current abusers who receive federal benefits continues to increase.
President Obama could choose to talk about what to do about these problems. During the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling debates, he's been unwilling to offer any serious cuts in spending, beyond defense and lower payments to Medicare providers. But, according to some estimates, more than 70 percent of the federal budget now goes for government dependency programs. And about a third of Americans receive support from these programs -- which undermines the notion that we are a self-reliant people.
Admittedly, challenging all Americans to think about what sacrifices they can make for their country's future would be an about face for this president. But if he had the courage, he'd go down in history for speaking the truth instead of telling people what they want to hear. It's called leadership.