If the president continues his track record of avoiding hard budget choices, his second-term agenda is doomed.
Beyond his ringing call to advance the liberties of all Americans and a muted bid to work together, the most crucial part of President Barack Obama’s inaugural address may have been his brief appeal for making “the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”
That’s because the outcome of his forthcoming battle with congressional Republicans on curbing federal spending and, especially, the costs of so-called “entitlements” looms as the necessary precursor to Obama’s hopes of achieving the rest of his ambitious second-term agenda.
“Either you get a handle on health care and Social Security solvency or he will have a failed presidency,” former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming told Politico.
The Republican decision to delay the fight over the debt ceiling means Obama could use his Feb. 12 State of the Union speech and his new budget to make specific proposals to curb the deficit and the burgeoning long-term costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
So far in his presidency, though, he has failed to make hard choices, despite his frequent references to the need to do so and despite the sweeping plan recommended by his own commission on deficit control, which Simpson co-chaired.
While again calling for “hard choices,” Obama once more suggested Monday that he will resist sweeping cuts, declaring that the nation’s commitments on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “strengthen us” rather than “sap our initiative.”
And in a gratuitous slap at defeated GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, he added: “They do not make us a nation of takers.”
Until now, both parties have sought to force the other to take the politically risky step of proposing to curb long-term costs of these programs. The issue helped to torpedo two efforts by Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to negotiate a grand bargain of revenue increases and spending cuts.
But it may come to a head as lawmakers cope with whether to accept or revise the sweeping spending cuts that were to have taken effect on Jan. 1 and with the GOP’s demand that Obama accept additional cutbacks in return for a long-term extension of the debt ceiling. Without entitlement cuts, the GOP demands will be difficult.
Republicans remain reluctant to accept additional revenue-raising measures, which Obama and the Democrats favor. Most Democrats resist the extent of entitlement reductions the GOP wants.
Beyond the budget, Obama cast much of his ambitious second-term agenda in the context of the need for today’s Americans to extend the expansion of liberty epitomized by those who fought for civil, women’s and gay rights in earlier generations.
Listing examples keyed to major elements in his electoral coalition, Obama said “our journey is not complete” until women receive equal pay for equal work, “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” “no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” and “we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants to still see America as a land of opportunity.”
He muted his call for expanded gun control, adding that “our journey is not compete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know they are cared for and cherished and always safe from harm.”
The biggest surprise was his strong, renewed call to respond to the threat of climate change. A Democratic Congress failed to pass such legislation in 2010, and House Republicans and some industrial state Democrats remain solidly opposed.
In the spirit of Inaugural Day, top Republican leaders mostly withheld criticism of Obama’s comments. But in a sign of things to come, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama faulted Obama for not saying more about deficit control, and Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan said “he missed an opportunity to reach out in a bipartisan manner.”
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