Johnson got bipartisan backing for deficit reduction in 1967, when he learned that the deficit had reached an unthinkable $28 billion. Faced with today’s annual deficits of $1 trillion and federal debt between $16.7 and $31 trillion, depending on whether you count off-budget obligations, LBJ no doubt would appoint a bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission and use it to get a tax, spending and entitlements fix so that he could move on to the rest of his agenda. Bill Clinton took the same practical approach and got to a balanced federal budget as soon as he could, at the beginning of his second term.

These former Democratic presidents would also know today that no Democratic or liberal agenda can go forward if debt service is eating available resources. Nor can successful governance take place if presidential and Democratic Party rhetoric consistently portrays loyal-opposition leaders as having devious or extremist motives. We really are, as Mr. Obama pointed out in 2008, in it together.

It’s not too late for the president to take a cue from his predecessors and enter good-faith budget negotiations with congressional Republicans. A few posturing meetings with GOP congressional leaders will not suffice. President Obama’s hype about the horrors of fiscal-cliff and sequestration cuts, and his placing of blame on Republicans, have been correctly viewed as low politics. His approval ratings have plunged since the end of the sequestration exercise.

But time is running out for Democrats to get serious about governance. That concrete barrier—in the form of the 2014 midterm—lies just ahead on the highway, and they’re joy riding straight toward it.