August 29, 2014

Obama Leaves Questions Open on ‘Hard Choices’

  • Social Security, established in 1935, is the federal government’s largest program. It represents approximately one-fifth of the federal budget and...

President Obama’s inaugural address Monday touched lightly on the subject of deficit reduction, but it failed to convey the magnitude of the fiscal problems facing the country and the urgency with which they should be corrected.

On the positive side, Obama acknowledged that the country needs to “make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit.”  As he indicated, this can be done without taking apart the social safety net.

Unfortunately, however, the President did not offer any real sense of what these “hard choices” should be. This was particularly noticeable on the large federal entitlement programs; he praised Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as strengthening the country, but he missed the opportunity to emphasize the need to put these important programs on sustainable paths.

The President called for revamping the tax code, an idea in which elected officials in both parties have expressed interest. But there are significant differences in Congress over what would constitute genuine tax reform, and Obama did not explain how he thought these differences might be bridged.

Comprehensive fiscal reform will require bipartisan compromise. On Monday Obama called for civil political discourse and cooperation, but some themes also emerged that indicated likely points of contention in the months ahead.

“Progress does not compel us to settle centuries-long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time,” Obama said. Democrats and Republicans alike would do well to keep that thought in mind during the coming budget negotiations.