President Obama's budget proposal for the coming year was widely dismissed this week as an election-year political messaging document filled with proposals that had no chance of passage. But to the extent that the plan was notable, it was more for what was left out than what was put in it.
Giving up any pretense of wanting to seriously address the nation's long-term fiscal crisis posed by the growth of entitlement programs, Obama dropped even a meager proposal from last year's budget that would have reduced spending on Social Security by changing the measure of inflation used to calculate benefits.
Though it was predictable that Obama would scrap the idea to avoid a backlash from the Democratic Party's liberal base in an already challenging political environment, the move demonstrated how far short Obama's presidency has come when viewed against the lofty promises with which it began.
Obama’s budget justified his move by stating that he originally made the offer on Social Security as a good faith effort to jump-start talks with Republicans, but given GOP unwillingness to agree to raise taxes in exchange for addressing entitlements, “this year the administration is returning to a more traditional budget presentation that lays out the president’s vision.”
Yet if Obama believed in making Social Security sustainable, he would be willing to outline his ideas for how the program should be saved. Offering solutions to one of the nation’s biggest challenges in the coming decades shouldn’t be viewed as a concession to Republicans, but something that he should be doing as a responsible leader.
Arguing that his budget document doesn't include serious entitlement reforms because that isn't politically feasible right now isn't much of an excuse. Obama cannot believe House Republicans will agree to more implementation funding for Obamacare; to embrace his $302 billion infrastructure spending proposal; or to rally behind $1.2 trillion in new tax increases. Yet all of those things are part of his budget, along with a myriad of other proposals that won't see the light of day.
As the budget notes, the document is a "vision." It's just that for Obama, that "vision" does not include addressing the nation's long-term fiscal challenges posed by the aging of the population and growing health care costs - at least beyond a few recycled Medicare payment reform proposals.
The concept of putting entitlements on a sustainable path isn’t some crazy right-wing creation. It’s something that Obama himself vowed to tackle when his presidency was in its infancy.
On Feb. 23, 2009, days after signing his roughly $800 billion economic stimulus package into law, President Obama convened a "fiscal responsibility summit" at the White House.
“Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in Washington these past few years, we cannot simply spend as we please and defer the consequences to the next budget, the next administration, or the next generation,” Obama declared.
Obama said if the federal government confronted the economic crisis “without also confronting the deficits that helped cause it, we risk sinking into another crisis down the road as our interest payments rise, our obligations come due, confidence in our economy erodes, and our children and our grandchildren are unable to pursue their dreams because they're saddled with our debts.”
He emphatically promised, “I refuse to leave our children with a debt that they cannot repay — and that means taking responsibility right now, in this administration, for getting our spending under control.”
He added that, “In the coming years, we'll be forced to make more tough choices and do much more to address our long-term challenges, from the rising cost of health care … to the long-term solvency of Social Security.”
It turns out that Obama would much rather talk about "tough choices" than actually make them.