Time for a televised debt crisis meeting

The debate over what to do about the nation’s debt ceiling only gets sillier by the day. Demands and counter-demands are producing little progress, which leaves the debate at an impasse. So what to do? Of paramount importance is to restore people’s faith in their leaders and themselves. One key step: The president should immediately call an open, televised roundtable discussion with congressional leaders as he did on health care. What the country urgently needs is for someone to flip a “circuit breaker” to stop all the noise surrounding the debt crisis debate and provide Americans with a greater sense of coherence and meaning about what is happening, and then to help create some semblance of possibility about how to move ahead. Leaders must demonstrate that it is possible to engage with one another, and to engage the nation, and for us to make progress.

Truth be told, I’m usually against meetings like the health-care roundtable. Typically, they turn into staged events where participants simply repeat canned positions. But, as you may recall, the health care roundtable actually led to some substantive discussion about where progress could be made, and where differences remained. There was real give-and-take, which offered the nation a moment of sanity in a sea of uncontrolled craziness.

Of course, the news media’s instant coverage of the health care roundtable didn’t help at the time. It was framed much like a post-game sports show, where analysts and pundits picked winners and losers, replayed “highlights,” and revved up conflict.

But that’s no reason for inaction now; for we must not minimize the damage to people’s faith in politics and public life from the current debate. A poll in today’s Washington Post reports fewer than a third of Americans hold much confidence in congressional leaders’ handling of the debt crisis, and under one-half in the president. No matter how one looks at the numbers, they’re ugly. People’s sentiments only reinforce a deepening narrative in the nation that we do not have the collective ability to get things done.

A televised meeting would air out the discussion about the nature of the challenge and how we got here. It would explore arguments for different options for dealing with the situation. Make no mistake: in all likelihood this won’t lead to any grand agreement on how to handle the debt crisis. But it would require leaders to make clear arguments, and to be held accountable for their statements, demeanor and posture. And it would require them to take responsibility for this challenge, rather than continue their empty posturing, gamesmanship, and desire for someone else to make the hard decisions.

As in communities, when impasse occurs, there often is agreement that a problem exists, but a lack of common ground about what to do about it. The current debt crisis is no different. Thus, one of the most important things that can happen at such a point is to acknowledge and “name” the problem, and then determine steps forward that give people a genuine sense that things are moving in a sound direction. Then a debate about subsequent actions can ensue.

Striking just “any deal” to break the current gridlock is not enough, especially one filled with gimmicks, which will only deepen people’s cynicism. At the heart of the debt crisis debate is people’s very faith in our ability to engage productively and get things done. It’s late in the game to call the type of meeting I have in mind, but it’s not too late.

Mr. President, make the call.