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Commentary

The new president's first duty: Tell Americans the 'whole truth'

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

Franklin Roosevelt's first inaugural address, in March of 1933, is best remembered for the famous line, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Before that line, however, Mr. Roosevelt told Americans what should guide Barack Obama in his inaugural address today and in his many subsequent pronouncements.

"I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the presidency," Mr. Roosevelt said, "I will address them with a candour and a decision which the present situation of our nation impels. This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly."

The "whole truth," spoken "frankly and boldly." What a relief today and in the months ahead after the lies and deceptions of the Bush years. And what a necessity the "whole truth" would be for a country that has not faced truths about itself for too long.

The U.S. economy is in a mess. Everyone knows that. The recovery from the Bush years will be long and hard, so extensive are the nation's debts, so enfeebled are its financial institutions, so grossly large is its deficit. Unemployment is going up. Consumer spending has tanked. Credit is hard to get. The first and second congressional bailout packages did not work as their crafters intended.

Truth-telling requires Mr. Obama to prepare Americans not just for the sacrifices needed to bring about recovery but to address intractable problems left long unattended. The underpinnings of social security and public programs providing health care to the poor and elderly are not properly financed, to say nothing of the lack of insurance for 45 million Americans. These are multi-trillion-dollar holes.

Mr. Obama has slowly been turning his rhetoric from the "all is possible" of the campaign to the need for hard decisions, a blend that will surely define today's address. In the single most encouraging move yet, he has agreed to convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" in February to begin focusing the country's attention on its unsustainable short-term deficits and its long-term unfunded liabilities.

Encouraging, too, have been the appointments to his administration that can best be characterized by exceptional accomplishment, abiding pragmatism and considerable experience. He promised in the campaign to bring "qualified people to government," and he has fulfilled that promise. The ideologues of the right have been banished to retirement, Republican think tanks, the Weekly Standard and Fox News - where their anger and denial can be maintained.

The question is whether this refreshing competence can be married to Mr. Obama's considerable, if early, political capital in the pursuit of the hard decisions that must be made to ensure America's long-term economic and fiscal prospects.

Although Mr. Obama did not breathe a word about new taxes in the campaign - indeed, he promised unwise tax cuts in his recovery package - the country's problems are so deep that only by seriously contemplating tax increases of some kind can they be solved.

A national sales tax, perhaps tied to future health-care payments, should be examined, plus a trimming of the mortgage and property tax deductibility arrangements and a lowering of the threshold for capital gains and estate taxes. Reasonable people can debate these, and other, tax changes. But unless Americans cut their spending on defence, pensions and other entitlement programs, or raise taxes on themselves - neither of which they have shown any interest in doing - their fiscal underpinnings will remain weak.

Presidents have not been willing to level with Americans about these problems. Republican presidents were in the White House for 20 of the past 28 years, and ran deficits every year, peddling the now thoroughly discredited notion that ever-lower taxes would balance budgets. Nor did they - or Democrat Bill Clinton, for that matter - deal with the unfunded liabilities looming in social security and health care. Commissions and committees examined both challenges, but nothing was done.

FDR ended his first inaugural saying, "The people of the United States have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes." Barack Obama is now the "instrument of their wishes." May he tell Americans the "whole truth."

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