Obama's Big Opportunity: Entitlement Reform

Why not be the first president to stop kicking the entitlement can down the road?

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Note: Today's unsolicited advice will go to the president. Next week I'll do the same for House Republicans. Happy Thanksgiving.

To: POTUS

Subject: How to reclaim mojo

From: SG

First, the bad news: There is no good news.

Unemployment is high, and it's not likely to budge in time to save you. Don't try railing at big business. It's a Housing Hangover, mostly. And nobody's going to buy your pitchfork shtick.

Your approval rating will not sniff 50 percent for the rest of this term. Your agenda is in tatters. Cap-and-trade was a nonstarter even with comfy Democratic majorities in Congress. You've got nothing to show for yourself on the world stage, except for the continuation of a war in Afghanistan that you didn't really want to continue, and that we probably can't win.

You're even having trouble getting an arms control treaty with a vanquished rival through the Senate.

[U.S. News debate: Should the United States ratify the New START Treaty?]

Ostensibly the only thing you have in your control is the veto of any attempt to roll back healthcare reform and—here's a glimmer of light—the budget.

This is your opening.

Use the forthcoming State of the Union Address to challenge House Republicans to make a grand bargain on entitlement reform. Stop talking about the Bush tax cuts in isolation. Don't get suckered into extending them temporarily—you'll just set yourself up for the same stupid debate in two years.

[Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.]

And, anyway, it doesn't make sense to talk about them as a means of stimulating the economy. You know better than the supply-side-oids. Moving marginal tax rates this way or that isn't going to sharpen or dampen growth in any significant way. All we know for sure is that they're going to blow an even bigger hole in the deficit. And if you really wanted to dispense with all this “certainty” nonsense, you could swiftly declare, “Taxes, I can say with certainty, are going up next year.”

The tax cuts should be resolved as part of a bigger deal on reforming entitlements.

The Bowles-Simpson plan is a better start than you might think. It's got the right wing grousing that it builds on the savings derived from the ACA. And it's got Sen. Tom Coburn admitting that, “This is going to require compromise.” With the unsurprising exception of Bill Kristol's “bomber boy” brigade, we haven't heard any squawking from the right about potential cuts to defense.

As surely as you know that marginal tax rates are an overrated lever for stimulating growth, you know that we can't avoid the entitlement crunch only by soaking the rich. It's going to require the slaying of some of the progressive left's sacred cows, too-and if your base is going to stay home, “depressed,” after getting healthcare reform against incredible odds, then they deserve to be thrown under the bus.

[See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

You're already the Democrat who finally delivered on healthcare. Why not be the first president to stop kicking the entitlement can down the road? The negotiation of such a deal would have the added benefit of demonstrating your willingness to work with Republicans, thereby reclaiming your appeal among low-information independents, who seem to prize this quality apart from any substantive merit.

The irreducible fact is that you have no other choice, no other option, than to pursue this bargain.

For the next 12 months, it will be the only one available to you.

If you don't act, Republicans are going spend 2011 passing bills to tamp down discretionary spending to 2008 levels, swearing off earmarks-and then congratulating themselves in 2012 for having “controlled spending.”

But you have the power to call their bluff.

  • U.S. News debate: Should the United States ratify the New START Treaty?
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on Obama.
  • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.