A Time for Sacrifice

A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is getting a lot of attention for its finding that President-Elect Obama is getting a whopping 67% approval rating from the public. But another, less noticed, finding of that poll is even more important for the Obama administration, and for the country. When asked “would you be willing to take a five percent pay cut if it meant saving jobs at your place of work?” 64% of Americans said they would.

That finding flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that, in a time of economic hardship, Americans turn inward, looking out for number one and forsaking concern for others. People are concerned about themselves and their families, to be sure. But they are also concerned about their fellow Americans and their nation. And they realize that, ultimately, we’re all in it together.

Why is that information so important for President-Elect Obama, especially when combined with his stellar approval rating? Because it should propel him to seek something from the American people that he has yet to clearly call for: sacrifice.

Obama has made clear that things will get worse in our economy before they get better. He’s begun to hint that some of his campaign promises may have to be delayed in order to address the daunting economic crisis. He should also tell us what we can do to help. Three places to start are energy, taxes, and health care.

When oil was at $147 per barrel, and gasoline at over $4 per gallon, no one needed to tell Americans to conserve. But with oil and gasoline costs now at record lows, it’s important to remind the country that energy independence, reversing global warming, and creating a cleaner environment are partly up to us. Public transportation, energy-efficient lights and appliances, even turning the thermostat down a couple of degrees, are just as important to the nation today as they were when energy costs were far higher. Those and other actions should accompany Obama’s much-needed demand for fuel-efficient vehicles from Detroit and green jobs for the new economy.

On the revenue side, Obama seems to be hedging on his promise to raise taxes for people making over $250,000 per year, at least for now. But there’s every reason to believe that affluent Americans are willing step up if they can see how their increased financial contribution will aid those worse off than themselves and, ultimately, the nation. Focusing economic stimulus efforts on those who are struggling and increasing taxes for the most affluent is a trade off that most are willing to make right now.

Obama has identified health care as a priority, and says it’s one that he won’t delay. That’s a good call, but he should go further. Insuring every single person in our country while ensuring quality care for all is likely to require changes for people who have insurance. Community clinics, for example, have proven to be efficient and effective systems for delivering quality care to a range of communities—rural, suburban, and urban. Obama should ask people who are currently insured for patience and flexibility as the country moves to a system that works for everyone. No one should have to give up quality care or pay unreasonable rates, but they may have to endure some short-term changes in mechanisms and providers order to achieve a system that works for everyone. The mandates that Hillary Clinton called for—and Obama rejected—during the primary season, for example, are worth reconsidering.

It’s true, of course, that Americans’ willingness to take a pay cut to preserve jobs in their own place of work does not necessarily translate directly to other kinds of sacrifice. But that’s where leadership—and that 67% approval rating—come into play. Just as JFK urged us to ask what we could do for our country, Obama should use his inauguration speech to call on all of us to make sacrifices for the common good. And he should keep reminding us—as he did during the election—that, ultimately, doing so is in our personal as well as national interest.

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