Time to Revive JFK's 'Ask Not' Call

Nov 22, 2013 | Updated Jan 25, 2014

It is one of the most famous lines ever uttered in an inaugural address: "Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country." President John F. Kennedy's call sought to invigorate a nation that was just beginning to use the power and influence it had gained through its triumph in World War II and subsequent post-war economic boom.

Now, as the United States struggles under the burden of unsustainable deficits and mushrooming debt due the imbalance between the benefits promised and the taxes assessed, never has Kennedy's challenge seemed more pertinent.

Perhaps it still represents the blueprint for American renewal.

Though just six years old when President Kennedy was assassinated, my earliest memories include visiting relatives with my parents and having the conversation often turn to the admiration people had for the Kennedy family's commitment to service.

Central to the Kennedy ideal is the idea of self-sacrifice for the greater good. In this day of political intransigence and not only inter-party, but also intra-party strife, blame seems to supplant earnest dialogue, and Kennedy's call appears long forgotten.

We seemingly face an intractable standoff on fiscal matters. Though if you sat down with all but the most partisan of Americans to discuss the fate of the nation over a beer, most would say that they understand that we will need to scale back on obligations we have made as a nation and will have to raise taxes on nearly everyone. I suspect that the citizenry is more willing to embrace Kennedy's call for self-sacrifice than the political elite.

Equally obvious to any observer is that the United States is nearly equally divided and it is hard for either party to advance its agenda alone. Too many political leaders latch themselves to rigid talking points that insist that we can right our national finances either completely through tax increases or entirely though cuts to healthcare and retirement entitlements.

While both approaches are technically possible, they would require not only control of the presidency and the House of Representatives, but also a sixty vote supermajority in the Senate. It has been nearly a century since this has been the case for Republicans and seems unlikely for the Democrats in the near future. The need to act is more urgent.

What makes this stalemate so exasperating is that the United States faces such a bright future if we can just reach a grand bargain on our debt. We are the only industrialized country with a growing population. America continues to innovate and attract top talent from around the world. Expanded domestic energy production due to the fracking revolution has the potential to fuel the American economy for decades. The main barrier to robust growth is the suffocating uncertainty of a ballooning balance sheet and a lack of political will to do anything about it.

Republicans likely would choose to focus on "Ask not what your country can do for you..." as support for their push to carve back entitlements and Democrats would prefer to suggest that "...what you can do for your country" bolsters their bid for higher taxes. A more accurate interpretation is that even though this standoff may be politically beneficial for both parties with their own partisan bases, perpetuating this selfish pursuit is too much to ask of our country.

It is long past time for both parties to put the country first and deal with our fiscal imbalances. I am confident that if they do, as John F. Kennedy said, "The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world."

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).