"I don't think there's a broad recognition yet amongst the public that these middle-class entitlements are unsustainable," he said.
Lawmakers argue that entitlement programs are needed to boost the economy and raise employment in the short term, even if economists say they would worsen the deficit.
That was the idea behind such large programs as the $787 billion stimulus, the bailout for automakers and the Troubled Asset Relief Program that saved banks from collapsing.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for lawmakers and the administration is how to cut programs that add to the deficit without upsetting the economy and voters.
The report released today by President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission proposed measures that would cut the deficit by $4 trillion through 2020 and reduce the deficit to 2.3 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2015.
But the report, which calls for cuts in spending across the board in both defense and non-defense categories and recommends a zero plan for tax reform, has been widely criticized for many of its suggestions, including one that the retirement age be increased by one month every two years after it reaches 67 under current law. That would mean the retirement age would be 68 in 2050 and 69 by 2075.
The vote on the final deficit reduction plan, which will be released today, will take place on Friday. Commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson acknowledged that their proposal may not receive a warm welcome by everyone.
"They're going to rip this thing to shreds and do it with zeal," Simpson said Tuesday. "There are plenty of zealots out here."
But the two also called on lawmakers to confront the realities of the hefty deficit.
"Together we have started an adult conversation that will dominate the debate until the elected leadership here in Washington does something real," Bowles said today.
The president already took one recommendation from the commission's report by freezing federal employees' salaries.
Some economists say the president's decision was a step in the right direction, but he needs to take bolder steps that would have a much wider impact on the long-term deficit.
Programs such as freezing pay, cutting earmarks and waste are a "a drop in the bucket," Sawhill said. "You need leadership, especially from the president, and then you need the public to have sufficient understanding of where their tax dollars go and what the government spends money on so that we can find the political will to do these tough things."
"It's going to take a lot of sacrifice and it's going to take not having tax cuts and it's going to take not promising seniors benefits out in the future that we can't afford," she added.
ABC News' Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.