How do you ask "shared sacrifice" of people who feel like they have nothing left to give?
As the White House and Republican leaders negotiate the Obama administration's next budget and debt-limit surrender, the amazing thing is that those on the short end of the country's growing wealth gap say they would sacrifice anything at all.
With GOP extremists defining the debate with a ruinous scheme that makes the presidential deficit commission's "spread the pain" plan seem rational by default, some Western New Yorkers would pitch in even if they know that it will hurt.
"I believe in shared sacrifice because that's what America is all about," said Stan, a Department of Agriculture retiree.
He doesn't want Medicare touched and thinks the mortgage interest deduction encourages homeownership. Yet the 75-year-old Amherst resident would pay the commission's higher gasoline tax because we've "lived too long relying on the bloated automobile."
"Everybody should feel the pain a little bit," said Angela, 50, an HSBC employee. "Of course, you think the rich should give up more. I don't know what the poor people can give up."
Still, the Buffalo resident said she'd forgo a bit of her Earned Income Tax Credit. "That's how low-income people could help out," she said.
But not every worker is so munificent. Robert, a 47-year-old sergeant at Attica Correctional Facility, feels as if "I've been sacrificing quite a bit" already. He hasn't had a contract in two years, calls gas prices "ridiculous" and figures he already pays enough federal taxes.
"How much more can we pay? I think the average guy's done enough," said the Lancaster resident, adding that any appeals for sacrifice should be targeted to the very rich.
He's not alone. A new McClatchy-Marist poll is just the latest to show an overwhelming majority of voters -- two-thirds in this survey -- favor raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year to cut the deficit. Conversely, an even bigger majority staunchly opposes going after Medicare and Medicaid.
And while 57 percent peg reducing the deficit as Congress' top priority, almost twice as many -- 27 percent, compared to 14 percent -- pick maintaining services and benefits over cutting taxes.
Yet it's almost as if McClatchy-Marist surveyed aliens, so consistently have the House GOP's Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and John Boehner assured us that "the American people" don't want anyone's taxes raised. Really?
Which brings us to President Charlie Brown.
The rich reaped all the benefits of the last decade while incomes in the middle and below stagnated or actually declined. Meanwhile, has anyone found all of the jobs that were supposed to have been created under the Bush tax cuts?
The federal budget staredown is all about fairness -- or the lack thereof. The public is not going to embrace hard choices such as reforming entitlements as long as "leaders" forgo easy choices like asking those who've benefited most from the economy to help the country that has been so good to them.
Yet this president continues to lose the debate despite having the economic data on his side. Like the hapless "Peanuts" character who keeps wanting to believe that Lucy won't snatch away the football, Barack Obama keeps wanting to believe he can compromise with folks who have only the interests of the nation's wealthiest at heart.
The astonishing thing to me is not that middle-class folks like Robert are fed up at being asked to sacrifice; it's that people like Angela and Stan would even consider chipping in more. It just goes to show how easily we could address the deficit fairly if only we had a leader worthy of the name.