GREGORY: Let me break a few of those things down because it's important, the level of detail. Let me start with this. You talk about the budget. You talk about spending. How will you vote on the debt ceiling? Will you vote to raise it which is a vote that will come up in relatively short order?
GRAHAM: Well to not raise the debt ceiling could be a default of the United States on bond and treasury obligations. That would be very bad for the position of the United States in the world at large but this is an opportunity to make sure that government is changing its spending ways.
I will not vote for the debt ceiling increase until I see a plan in place that will deal with our long term debt obligations starting with Social Security, a real bipartisan effort to make sure that Social Security stays solvent, adjusting the age, looking at means tests for benefits. On the spending side I'm not going to vote for a debt ceiling increase unless we go back to 2008 spending levels, cutting discretionary spending...
GREGORY: Let me stop you right there Senator. That's a big condition just on Social Security alone. Do you think Republicans are prepared to follow you in two things you said; raise the retirement age and means test benefits for older Americans?GRAHAM: I would suggest that if we're serious about taking America in a new direction and you're not putting entitlement reform on the table, you've missed a great opportunity to change the course of America's future. And the last election was about change, change that really will make us something other than Greece. I think Pat Toomey, Rand Paul and the other candidates that are new to the Congress that said during the campaign, everything's on the table when it comes to making America fiscally sound. Let's see if we can find bipartisan reforms in Social Security before we raise the debt limit.
Odd as it sounds amid a wheezing economy, mounting bankruptcies and rising unemployment, President-elect Barack Obama and his aides realize they'll actually be dealing with the easy part of their economic challenge when he takes office next week. After all, getting Congress to agree to spend billions of dollars and cut billions more in taxes to stimulate the economy right now is, politically speaking, relatively easy.
The harder part will be trying to follow that up by creating what is coming to be known in Obama circles as a Grand Bargain: getting everyone to agree to clean up the nation's budget mess in a really big way, one that doesn't just fix the problems being created now, but also addresses the frightening long-term problems America was going to face anyway to pay for Social Security and Medicare in coming decades.
For this Grand Bargain to work, all sides would agree to sacrifice some part of their agenda. The price they would agree to pay would be unhappiness -- temporary, perhaps, but real -- among their constituents and favorite special interests. Their reward would be a cure for problems everybody knows they'd have to deal with a few years down the road.
In other words, the Obama view is that the country has reached a momentous point in its economic history, like it or not. Why not try to see whether the nation can turn pain into an opportunity to make an equally momentous change in the way it conducts its affairs?
This is why the opening of the Obama era next week will be a time of both great peril and great opportunity. The risk of further economic meltdown and government overreach are both very real. But times of great problems also can be times of great clarity, when all see and agree that big problems simply can't be avoided.
President George W. Bush, by comparison, could never get Congress or the nation to buy into his call to reform Social Security, noble though the effort might have been. To be blunt, the problem just didn't seem all that pressing to enough people. Life was good; the problem could be pushed into a corner.
These times are different. The test of Mr. Obama's presidential leadership is whether he can convince his own party, the Republican opposition and the public that pain also represents an opportunity to do more than muddle through.