Pete Peterson's long campaign against the national debt

Pete Peterson, chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, speaks at the 2012 Fiscal Summit on May 15, 2012 in Washington, D.C.

These days, the federal deficit and national debt seem to be the starting point for almost every conversation in Washington. But as the sequestration's automatic budget cuts loom, there are plenty of smart people who think politicians' priorities are wrong.

"I think it's this very, very perverse situation," says Dean Baker, who heads the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "We're focused on what's not the issue."

Thee recovery's not over, Baker says. Unemployment is still too high. Mary Kay Henry agrees with him. She's the president of the Service Employees International Union, or the SEIU.

"We need, as a nation, to understand that the debt issue, while important, is not Job One," she says.

The Tea Party is taking credit for this week's standoff, but the fixation on our debt? Jim Thurber teaches government at American University, and he says credit for that goes to a guy who was Commerce Secretary during the Nixon administration. "I think Pete Peterson certainly has helped push this onto the agenda," he says.

Pete Peterson ... and nearly half a billion dollars of his own money.

Peterson co-founded a private equity firm called the Blackstone Group, and he was chairman and CEO of Lehman Brothers. Thurber says Peterson has been passionate about the debt and the deficit ... for decades.

"I think that he has focused on this issue in a singular way," Thurber says. "He has a clear strategy, theme and message of 'Let's fix the debt. Let's do something about the deficit.'"

And he's done that by giving money to a long list of think tanks and advocacy groups. He and his foundation commission studies and sponsors projects.

One of the best-known advocates for deficit reduction is Maya MacGuineas. She heads two groups Peterson supports, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and more recently, the Campaign to Fix the Debt. She hosted a kickoff event for the newest one last summer.

"The Campaign to Fix the Debt is going to bring together CFOs, business leaders, former members of congress, budget experts, economists, but most importantly, voters across the country," MacGuineas says.

Thurber, at American University, estimates it's already spent at least $25 million on ad campaigns and big events.

"Now, whether it will help resolve our situation or not is another question," he says. "That is about political will."

Peterson would agree it's about political will. And while his focus has been on the long-term, politics have led to this week's short-term fight over sequestration.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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