No Easy Way Out: Citizens Talk About Tackling the Debt


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After months of paralyzing partisan disagreement, the nation’s political system now is struggling to avert a fiscal calamity. President Obama and congressional leaders, spurred on by business leaders and a broad range of interest groups, speak of the need to find ways to act. But even amid these hopeful signs, Democrats and Republicans remain divided on nearly every aspect of the budget and spending.

This new report by Jean Johnson about recent citizen deliberations on the debt suggest the seeds of consensus on how to tackle the problem, but warns that deep cynicism about Washington makes many Americans question whether elected officials will act―and whether they can be trusted to act.

While pundits say that most Americans are unrealistic about the scope of the problem and unwilling to support needed changes,  deliberations by groups of citizens around the country suggest that, in fact, this is an issue where solutions exist and are within reach. These deliberative forums, hosted by local groups affiliated with the nonpartisan National Issues Forums Institute, reveal that many citizens are willing to wrestle with the problems of debt and that they understand that getting these problems under control will require broad acceptance of change and sacrifice. Most people seem to yearn for elected officials who will put long-term national interest ahead of near-term politics—leaders who are willing to hammer out a compromise.

In dozens of forums held over the past year, citizens were focused, open-minded, and realistic as they weighed alternative paths for stabilizing the debt, as outlined in the A Nation In Debt issue guide. Nearly all citizens were receptive to multiple ideas for needed change. At the same time, most had questions, doubts, and stipulations that leaders need to understand and address.

The views of those who participated in the National Issues Forums deliberations are not a scientific sample of public opinion. However, they do represent the thinking of a diverse and concerned group of citizens. Even more important, these conversations reveal what might happen if more of the public had a chance to think seriously with their fellow citizens about the choices involved in tackling the debt. The questions participants raised, the doubts they voiced, and the criteria they discussed suggest what may be needed to develop a larger, stronger constituency for meaningful action on this historic national challenge.

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Reports on NIF forums