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Will Obama take lead on national debt and budget deficit?

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Yet missing from the conversation in any kind of forceful way has been the president himself. When former Senator Simpson and Mr. Bowles, President Clinton's former chief of staff, put out their draft plan (in a surprise move three weeks before the final report's Dec. 1 due date), Obama was in Asia. A spokesman said he would wait for the final report before commenting.

Obama's Nov. 13 radio address did take a baby step toward committing on fiscal matters: In addressing earmarks, he spoke of putting "our country on the path of fiscal discipline and responsibility."

But Obama probably can't rely on others to do the heavy lifting. Few observers expect the fiscal commission to reach the supermajority needed – 14 out of 18 members, most of them politically sensitive members of Congress – to approve a final report. That means Congress is likely not to face a vote on its recommendations.

But final report or not, Obama has an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on a matter of central national importance. Dec. 1 "should mark the handing of the torch to the president to start running with this issue," says Maya MacGuineas, director of the Fiscal Policy Program at the New America Foundation in Washington.

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