Why Obama's Wrong on Entitlement Reform Patience

In modern political history, "wait" often means "never."

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In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King Jr. aptly wrote:

For years now, I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”

If you’ll pardon the analogy, this sounds a lot to me like the perversity of the budget debate.

In his press conference today, President Obama called reporters “impatient.” “The assumption is, if it doesn’t happen today, it’s not going to happen," he said.

Well, yes, I’d say that’s exactly the assumption—and it’s a pretty fair one to make. There’s just nothing in the history of modern politics to suggest this assumption is anything short of infallibly correct.

President Obama said further: “This is not a matter of you go first or I go first.” What he’d like to see on entitlement reform is “everybody getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.” [Take the U.S. News poll: Is Obama right about entitlement reform?]

The reason for that ever-empty boat is not simply risk-averse politicians. As my friend Ramesh Ponnuru has written, counseling the GOP to wait on entitlement reform until a Republican wins the White House: “Republicans have no mandate for reform.” This is an important point. Congressional Republicans are fond of saying the American people rewarded them with a House majority in the hopes that spending will be cut dramatically. But reams of polling data suggest otherwise.

In effect, Republicans, and to a lesser extent President Obama himself, have talked themselves into a corner, blustering about spending cuts that the public doesn’t really want, and that won’t make much of a difference anyway. [Read more stories about the deficit and national debt.]

If the impasse over entitlement reform proves permanent—and I think more likely than not that it is—we need to approach the problem differently.

James Pinkerton recently had some interesting, if sort of depressing, thoughts about the need to develop medical technology that will allow us all to remain in the workforce into our twilight years.

If we want them to work longer, we had better figure out a way to enable them to thrive longer. And that means more medications to help them deal with heart disease and obesity. And of course Alzheimer’s, which seems to strike without regard to diet or lifestyle. That’s a tall order, to bend these disease curves, but if we succeed, then we can begin to think about raising the retirement age.

Short of such technical advances, Mickey Kaus floats the equally interesting scenario that, since Medicare costs only become unsustainable in the “out years,” a better-informed public might decide straightforwardly that it likes the program and is willing to pay for it.

More and more, I’m becoming persuaded that “failure” really is an option—and that we’ll need to readjust our definition of “solution” accordingly.

  • Take the U.S. News poll: Does Obama's budget strike the right balance?
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