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Senior Correspondent

The current debate over the national debt is a smokescreen for a more important battle over the priorities in the federal budget. Here's why: The federal budget defines our present commitments while simultaneously it mortgages the country's future. It is symbolic of our societal values and our national priorities. 85 percent of the budget is Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, defense, and interest on our national debt. Meanwhile, the two major political parties are warring over the impact of taxes (new revenues) and entitlements on the national debt, which camouflages the need for the nation to discuss crucial issues involving the future. Part of the current debate has to be about a tomorrow that inspires the best of us to support a broader, more inclusive and progressive agenda.

The average American voter may not fully appreciate the consequences of the narrow debate both political parties prefer to wage. One party tells us that strict austerity measures and tax cuts for the wealthy along with less regulation are the path to the future while the other party struggles to preserve the social safety net. The Republican party is instinctively present-oriented while the Democrats have one foot in the present and the other timidly in the future. This party effectively immobilizes itself. Americans should understand that our budget priorities are not preparing us for the future. Only they can assure themselves of a better future through the kind of consistent and focused citizen activism that has been a hallmark of 2011.

A future worthy of this country necessitates a national commitment to “investments in science and technology, preserve our lead in biotechnology, upgrade our education system, making college more affordable, and the debt easier to pay” says former president Bill Clinton. Again, one political party threatens major cuts in the areas that promote the future while the other fails to articulate and promote a vision for the future for fear of being labelled an advocate for big government. If the government does not lead, who will?

The American people are hungry for leadership, for ideas. And they are increasingly anxious about the future. They want to know where we're going, why and how? The same, however, can not be said of our elite. They are too invested in a dialogue about present gains.

What we need today are great leaders, not those who aspire to lead. True greatness is a rare commodity in American politics. It requires the competence to meet the demands of the present because that is where we live. Greatness also requires the ability to see beyond the horizon and set goals consistent with our national character. For example, President John F. Kennedy challenged the scientific community to do what was necessary to see to it that “America places a man on the moon by the end of the decade (of the 60s).” Kennedy's challenge awakened the American spirit by “planting the seed of possible future achievement into the fertile soil of imagination.” What we lack today is a workable political consensus around a set of ideas which, when translated into policy and budget priorities, can catapult this country into the 21st century.

Americans are at their best when they are challenged, confident in tomorrow, and called upon to lead. Elements within the global community today are eclectically attempting to fill a leadership vacuum behind an America turned against itself. Our political leaders squabble about short-term political positioning for 2012. Their budget priorities do not reflect the critical need to harness American energy, talent, and creative genius in science and technology, alternative energy sources, healthcare, and education. These areas of critical research and investment represent tomorrow — the future. Republicans and Democrats will spend billions in unregulated campaign funds to dull our senses about short-term jobs' bills and a more equitable tax code while concurrently emasculating federal programs that provide a temporary shield for the most vulnerable in our society. The anti-government crowd will preach austerity in a period of slow-to-no-growth while adding hundreds of thousands of public employees to the ranks of the unemployed. Both sides lack a willingness to forge a consensus on a vital role for government in non-defense areas of our economy or to explore public-private sector partnerships to produce an economy of shared prosperity. This is not a novel approach.

The future viability of any society is largely the legacy the current generation of leadership bequeaths to its successors. Our current national discussion about the nation's priorities is toxic at its core. Moreover, it raises at least two important questions: Will our culture, values, and mores remain intact in the near term? And, will our political system and economy provide a stable foundation upon which the next generation can create its future? At a minimum, major political decisions having an impact on contemporary life must also anticipate the consequences — or benefits — for the next generation through the budget process. That is a hallmark of responsible and intelligent leadership. In this country, we have reasons to fear for tomorrow. The elite whose opinions, ideas, and policies combine to shape contemporary society, are constructing a questionable legacy of greed and dysfunctional government during this country's hour of greatest need.

Chronicling this legacy began under the presidency of George W. Bush and may fold into the presidency of his successor Barack Obama. This legacy punishes the future for present political gains that hobble economic growth and weaken American confidence about the future.

The anti-government crowd today has no sense of history. Moreover, they fail to appreciate what can be accomplished when government and the private sector work together for national purposes. The Republicans long for the unregulated, semi-wilderness of America of the 19th century. The Democrats are anchored to preserving sacred — and costly — programs while failing to aggressively pursue an agenda to rebuild the middle class. An emboldened President, meanwhile, still lacks a coherent vision that deepens public confidence in the future direction of the country.

At the end of the day, the future of this country hinges upon putting forth the most progressive ideas utilizing the best talent available under focused and dynamic leadership. We may, or may not, get the right formula in 2012 but the public should experiment until we do, rather than surrender the future that the American people deserve for the sake of political gains in the present.

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