Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Politics or Patriotism? Obama’s Big Entitlement Choice

Harry Reid is no patriot. I say that as one who almost always gives politicians on both sides of the ideological spectrum the benefit of the doubt. Even if I vehemently disagree with them, I assume that they ran for office and serve primarily out of love of country and a desire to make the nation a better place.

Not Reid.

Over the last few years Reid has shown himself to be a purely political animal. First came his 2007 comments proclaiming that the war in Iraq was “lost.” His seeming disregard for how this defeatist rhetoric coming from the leader of the U.S. Senate would affect the morale of troops who were in harm’s way in Iraq was shocking and morally repugnant.

Now Reid has emerged as the titular leader of the “do-nothing” caucus when it comes to Social Security reform. His strategy is two-fold. First, he and his associates hope to convince Americans that there is no threat to the future solvency of Social Security. Second, they seek to convince Americans that any action taken to change Social Security will result in complete destruction of the program immediately upon implementation and would put current retirees at risk.

Only someone blinded by partisanship could actually believe that there is no danger to the long-term solvency of Social Security and Medicare. All of the discussion of the debt and the risks it poses to America’s fiscal future is entirely meaningless unless both parties agree to tackle entitlement reform.

So the G.O.P. is going to try in their upcoming 2012 budget. But they will not be getting any help from Reid and the politically desperate congressional Democrats. It would appear that the only hope of achieving needed reforms is for the president to get on board and shame enough Congressional Democrats into supporting some kind of plan.

Because they are very familiar with the Democrat’s long history of successful demagoguery of the entitlement issue, Republicans are being understandably cautious. So, in an unprecedented show of pre-emptive bipartisanship, the Republican leadership has promised not to politicize entitlement reform for political gain if the President comes forward and is the first to propose a template for changes that would lead to long-term solvency.

There should be little fear of Republicans stabbing the President in the back if he does decide to put something on the table. The conservative base is demanding entitlement reform and has made it very clear that if Boehner and Company don’t take reduction of the debt seriously enough, the Tea-Party will simply stay home in 2012, regardless of the political repercussions. So the entitlement reform ball is now squarely in Barack Obama’s court.

With all eyes on his actions, President Obama, will soon be forced to make a decision that could come to define his presidency. He can either take the traditional Democratic route and shamelessly politicize any Republican efforts to make even minimal changes to Social Security and Medicare. Or, he can throw Reid under the bus and become the President who finally did something about the most serious threat to the nation’s fiscal future.

There is no doubt something very tempting about going with the less patriotic, purely political option. It has a history of paying off.

In 1995 President Clinton successfully vilified very modest cuts to the growth of entitlement spending proposed by Newt Gingrich. He turned the American people against the G.O.P. with dire warnings that Newt Gingrich and the Republican Congress would "destroy Medicare" letting the program "wither on the vine." Playing on this fear, Clinton revived his ailing political fortunes and coasted to an easy re-election in 1996.

Coming off a close re-election victory in 2004, President George W. Bush proposed a similarly modest plan to allow younger workers the option of investing a fraction of their Social Security taxes into private accounts. Those classy guys over at the DNC responded to this proposal by creating a cartoon that had the president pushing an old lady off a cliff. Nice. They exhibited no signs of conscience and immediately began making false claims that the plan would rip Social Security benefits away from current retirees, when in fact, the impact of the Bush plan would not have affected any American under the age of 55. The Democrats’ efforts helped sink Bush’s approval ratings into the 30’s and boosted the Democrats chances of taking back the House, which they did in 2006.

Call me crazy, but I don’t believe that Obama is Harry Reid or Bill Clinton. Despite the myriad falsehoods that came out of the Administration during the health care reform debate, I think Obama genuinely cares about the well-being of the nation--even though his ideas for achieving it are usually counterproductive to the goal--and he must understand that no other issue will affect that long-term well-being like the out of control growth of entitlements in the wake of the mass retirement of the Baby Boom generation.

Despite the results of the 2012 election, the president is in danger of leaving behind a relatively empty legacy. The legal viability of Obamacare is in doubt. A big “green jobs” program and “card check” are DOA in Congress and it is highly unlikely that the GOP will lose control of the House within the next two election cycles. Repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” will soon be forgotten by all but a tiny wing of Obama’s base and on foreign policy matters, the president has largely continued the once controversial tenets of his predecessor.

But if Obama acts in good faith and works with the GOP on this most pressing of matters, not only will he receive most of the credit --one of the perks of being the Chief Executive (see Bill Clinton and welfare reform)--but he has a chance of turning his legacy into one that includes a huge bipartisan legislative achievement. Even his fiercest conservative critics would have to grudgingly admit that this would be a positive mark on the record of an ideological opponent.

So the choice for Obama is clear: shameless politicization and an easier path to re-election. Or, bipartisanship--a step towards a promised tone-change that has never materialized--and movement towards a solution to the entitlement problem. A problem that threatens to cripple our economy under a mountain of permanent, unmanageable debt and will destroy the dream of Social Security and Medicare for my generation and every generation that succeeds it.

The choice is his.

We are about to see what kind of president and what kind of man Barack Obama really is.

It is to be hoped that he won’t follow the cynical and dangerous path that Harry Reid has chosen to tread. If he does, then the last chance to win the entitlement war may very well be lost.

- Dan Joseph

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