OpEd: State of the Union Is Mixed

The current state of the union is mixed. While we are a great country, the largest economy, and the world's leading democracy, we face serious challenges that threaten our collective future. Chief among these is our nation's deteriorating financial condition and longer-range fiscal outlook. The plain and simple truth is that if our elected officials do not take steps to put our nation's finances in order, everyone will suffer to differing degrees over time.

While our fiscal challenge is great and over arching in nature, we also need to address other key challenges, including slow economic growth, high unemployment and under-employment, and our inadequate critical infrastructure. Moreover, we need to dramatically reform our policies and approaches to education, energy, the environment, health care, immigration, regulation and taxes. Our nation's leaders must address all of these in order to create a better future for the American people.

But no progress will be meaningful and lasting unless we repair our fiscal foundation. Beyond the short-term deficit and current debt numbers that are well publicized, we face huge financial obligations that could swamp our ship of state in the future. For example, the U.S. government's total liabilities and unfunded promises have skyrocketed from $20.4 trillion in 2000 to about $71.3 trillion today. This amount is growing by about $350 billion a month absent action.

To put it bluntly, the federal government has grown too big, promised too much, and lost control of the budget. The U.S. government is almost 12 times bigger as a percentage of the economy than 100 years ago, and the annual appropriations process only controls about 33 percent of spending versus 97 percent in 1912. So-called mandatory spending will only increase in the future unless we tackle the three primary drivers of our nation's structural deficits—known demographic trends, rising health care costs and an outdated tax system. Failure to address these will have a serious adverse impact on many areas that Americans care about, such as national defense, homeland security, education, energy, infrastructure and the environment.

Unless we take definitive action, rather than simply lurch from one short-term fiscal crisis to another, our standard of living will deteriorate over time and even our domestic tranquility will be threatened. The most vulnerable in our society are likely to be affected most if we experience a U.S. debt crisis, and that is not right. We must not allow our poverty rate to increase and we need to address the growing economic opportunity gap and income disparity.

We must take steps soon to spur economic growth, generate more jobs, increase fiscal responsibility and improve inter-generational equity. We should do so in a comprehensive and integrated package that includes additional investment in critical infrastructure and research, combined with a clear, credible and enforceable plan to address our structural deficits and defuse our ticking debt bomb.

Clearly, this is a critical time for President Obama. He is the only person elected by all the nation's voters, and can use his "bully pulpit' to appeal directly to the American people. Tonight he must start a conversation with the public about needed fiscal reforms. He must fully embrace his role as CEO of our nation and do what is best for our collective future. It is time for him to acknowledge the seriousness of our situation and to offer a vision and framework for a way forward that bridges the partisan and ideological divides in Washington.

Hopefully, President Obama will take the first step this evening toward providing a basis for achieving a fiscal "Grand Bargain" in 2013. He should follow-up tonight's message with a budget proposal that is designed to recognize reality, reduce debt/GDP to a reasonable and sustainable level by 2024, and build a bridge to the future that can achieve meaningful bipartisan agreement. After all, major transformational reforms only tend to occur in odd numbered, non-election years.

In the final analysis, "We the People" must hold our elected officials accountable for what they do and what they fail to do. We must make the political price associated with kicking the can down the road higher than the price of making tough choices to create a better future. Ultimately, it's up to us!

David M. Walker is former U.S. Comptroller General and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. This work is the opinion of the writer and in no way represents the opinion or stance of ABC News or the Walt Disney Company.

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