As one who worked in and around a few presidential campaigns, I'm always troubled and honestly quite alarmed when potential presidential candidates ask staff, focus groups, and tea leaves what their message should be and who in essence, they are. As a politician, if you have reached a point in your life where you actually think you can and deserve to be president of the United States — but still need someone else to articulate your core beliefs, your thoughts and your very vision for our nation — then you have no business running for the office. Period.

If you enter the presidential campaign arena, your core beliefs should pour out of you. No teleprompter, note cards, or Svengali staff or advisers needed. For the gold-plated example of this, look no further than the 1976 Republican convention, when Ronald Reagan took to the podium, unscheduled and unscripted, and mesmerized those in attendance with his vision and leadership.

If you are one of the Republicans now jockeying for the 2012 nomination to challenge President Barack Obama and you get the obligatory question of "Why are you running for president?" it's expected that your answer should be something like: "I am running because our nation is in deep trouble and in the most precarious position in its history. The threats we face from terrorism and economic calamity grow by the day, while all that is good, pure, and traditional about America is being smothered under the combined blankets of socialism, multiculturalism and political correctness. I am running because I know our country to be the hope of the world and not the problem."

Beyond that, a few details would be nice. For instance, the critical and often ducked debate on entitlements. Medicare. Social Security. Heard of them? What do you really think are the solutions for these massively insolvent programs? Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi is taking some bold stands on this and other subjects of late, but few are following his lead.

The American people especially want to know what those who seek to replace President Obama truly believe when they finally realize that our deficit this year will be $1.65 trillion and that our nation now has $14.2 trillion in accumulated debt. Those numbers are staggering, and yet politicians from both sides insult the intelligence of the American people by trumpeting an insignificant $30-plus billion in "cuts."

To their credit, Rep. Paul Ryan and other Republicans in the House have decided to shine a spotlight on the Medicare meltdown and offer a possible solution. Predictably, the Democrats, through the megaphone of New York Rep. Steve Israel, have ridiculed the plan for partisan reasons. Worse, they offer up hackneyed and sophomoric attacks on the plan as their counter-argument.

Said Mr. Israel, "We are going to use the budget to prove to Americans that every time Republicans choose to protect oil company profits while privatizing Medicare for seniors, seniors will choose Democrats." The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee then breathlessly warned that the Ryan budget would "end Medicare as we know it and force senior to clip coupons if they need to see a doctor."

Great. Just the kind of serious policy response the American people were hoping to hear.

In case there were any doubts, the president's speech last week on the budget and our crippled economy signals his switching of gears into full campaign mode as he seeks reelection. While the president and his team will employ a number of tactics to retain the White House, it is clear that, like President Bill Clinton in 1996, he is going to co-opt some of the Republican message, point to worthless cuts in discretionary spending as solid accomplishments, attempt to further tax the rich, employ class warfare, and convince the American people that he and the Democrats heard their message loud and clear in 2010, while the Republicans are now putting politics before principle. The players change, but the strategy remains the same.

Fine. We get what the president is going to roll out as the new and improved Barack Obama. But again, what of the GOP candidates? Where do they truly stand on the issues that clearly will determine the fate of the American people?

It's so very easy for the Democrats and their supporters in the media to savage the Ryan plan for fiscal sanity. That's what's expected. That's our political system. Attack the other guy, offer nothing yourself and kick the can down the road for the next politician to deal with.

Except … we've run out of time. Medicare, Social Security, Obamacare, unfunded pension plans and terrorism are all threatening our well-being. Any one of them could inflict catastrophic wounds. And yet, it's politics as usual.

Time for all of us to grow up. The American people need to understand that only shared sacrifice will save us. And our politicians and those who hope to replace Barack Obama need to level with us and tell us what they truly believe.

If not, we will all pay an unimagined price.

Douglas MacKinnon is a former White House and Pentagon official and author of the forthcoming memoir, "Rolling Pennies In The Dark." His email is douglas.mackinnon@verizon.net.