Commentary: Obama must get serious about entitlement reform

The Kansas City StarFebruary 3, 2013 

MCCLANAHAN THOMAS KC

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.

MBR — MCT/Kansas City Star

President Obama’s inaugural speech struck the notes expected on such occasions. He evoked our founding documents. He used words like “timeless” and “enduring,” and as with most Obama speeches, it was a fine performance. Yet after four years you know this president doesn’t always mean what he says.

To some extent, that’s true of all politicians, of course. But with this one it seems more so. He once promised to go through the budget “line by line,” but as time passed he became uncommonly resistant to reducing any of the numbers on those lines.

So when you hear him talking about remaking our government or reforming the tax code or making the “hard choices” needed to tame health care costs, the words slide by like so much rhetorical wallpaper.

What you do understand after last week is that he has little intention of doing things that seem obvious, imperative, essential to the country’s future. Given the nation’s fiscal dilemmas, what the speech seemed to highlight was a shocking dereliction of duty.

He suggested there’s no need to retool Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in any way. These programs, as Obama put it, “do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.”

Never mind that he himself has admitted that if nothing is done about Medicare and Medicaid, they “will consume the entire federal budget.” But that was then. The latest word is what he told House Speaker John Boehner late last year: “We don’t have a spending problem.”

You watch all this with an almost ghoulish fascination, as you might watch a video of a bus careening down a mountain road, with the driver’s friends partying in front, drowning out a chorus of warnings from the back.

What’s that they say back there? Something about the driver being reckless. That without repairs the bus will crash. Something about hairpin turns ahead.…

Pay them no mind, the driver says. They have nothing to contribute. “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” he intones, “or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.”

The people in front cheer. Besides, the driver says, “Our journey is not yet complete.”

Yet without substantial upgrades, that bus will break down long before the journey is “complete.”

The modern welfare state is slowly collapsing not only here but across the developed world. Meanwhile, the president and his party, who have overseen a near-doubling of the national debt in four years, have refused to seriously discuss how things might be set on an even keel.

Since the era of chronic deficits began 40 years ago, most of the increased spending has been for social service programs, primarily Medicare and Medicaid — the costs of which have risen five-fold over that period. Next year, health care entitlement costs will further accelerate with the near-full implementation of Obamacare.

After the speech, Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, and the next day a photo of the happy pair, waving to the crowd, adorned the nation’s front pages.

A nice moment, but repairs to that bus can’t be put off forever.

Nor can the people who will need it in the future be fooled forever about its true condition, or the tax load they and their children will face for today’s refusal to act.

One promise Obama has worked hard to fulfill is his belief that government must “share the wealth.” But in blocking all serious attempts to reform entitlements, he is redistributing income less from today’s wealthy than from future taxpayers, increasing the risk that they’ll be forced to pay in the form of stunted economic growth and diminished prospects.

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