Last week’s announcement by Standard & Poor’s that it was cutting the outlook on our nation’s long-term rating from stable to negative for the first time in 70 years was a cold, hard reality check — we need to get our fiscal house in order sooner, rather than later, or suffer the consequences.

The immensity of our fiscal crisis is daunting. We are already $14 trillion in debt. On our current trajectory, we’ll add another $7.2 trillion in the next 10 years. By that time, we could be paying nearly $1 trillion per year just to pay the interest on the debt.

Without serious deficit and debt reduction, we face spiraling inflation and interest rates, lower productivity growth and a lower standard of living. Last year, feeling the political pressures of an election year, President Barack Obama appointed the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to propose a deficit reduction plan.

Shortly after the elections, the panel put forward a credible blueprint. However, earlier this year, the president essentially ignored the commission’s recommendations and the will of the voters when he released a budget proposal calling for more spending, higher taxes and bigger government.

Congressional Republicans, true to their election promise, have stood firm in their demands for less spending, successfully pressing for $38 billion in cuts from current fiscal year spending. In addition, they endorsed House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s long-term deficit reduction plan, which includes needed tax and entitlement reform. The details of this plan can be debated, but at least it recognizes the seriousness of our unfolding debt crisis.

President Obama is now trying to show the American people that he, too, is serious about deficit reduction. But his newly hatched alternative is heavy on tax increases and light on spending cuts and entitlement reform specifics. The president is now barnstorming the country, attacking the Ryan plan and framing the debate in clearly political terms.

We can, nevertheless, take some encouragement in the fact that the debate is now joined. Thanks to the insistence of the voters and the courageous steps of the bipartisan deficit commission and Rep. Ryan, we are starting to see the great lumbering machinery of government in Washington beginning to move. The debate will be long and rancorous and the outcome far from clear.

One key question that needs to be answered is: Are the American people really serious about reining in government and controlling deficits, including making modest, phased-in changes to time-honored entitlements? Or will they punish elected officials and candidates who try to bring genuine change and real fiscal reform to our nation? We’ll see!

— Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.