Just as it took a Republican to thaw our relationship with China, it will probably take a Democrat to reform our entitlement programs. Again and again, Obama promised to step up to the challenge. Then he left the country at the altar and pursued partisan politics instead.
Bill Clinton was going to be the first Democratic president to tackle entitlement spending. Although the effort has been completely ignored by the establishment media, Clinton was planning historic reforms during his second term. These were to include private accounts under Social Security and vouchers for Medicare.
If that doesn’t knock your socks off, you haven’t been paying attention. When Republicans propose these things, Democrats invariably claim the GOP is trying to destroy the social safety net and leave the elderly to fend for themselves.
Clinton was serious. He had his Treasury Department draw up detailed plans. In fact, when Pat Moynihan, the colorful intellectual senator from New York, was appointed by President George W. Bush to co-chair the Social Security reform commission, the first thing he did was ask the Treasury to send him the Clinton-era planning documents so that the commission could continue where Clinton’s policy team left off.
So what derailed Bill Clinton’s ambitious reform agenda? Monica Lewinsky. Left wing Democrats in Congress threatened to throw him under the bus in the impeachment proceedings unless he completely dropped the reform ideas they regarded as heresy. Unfortunately for the country, he obliged.
The next opportunity came with Barack Obama. During the Democratic presidential primary in 2008, he was the only serious candidate who called for entitlement reform. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, he said, cannot continue on the path they are on. Of course, the left didn’t like hearing this any more than they liked what Bill Clinton was going to propose. Obama was excoriated by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and was attacked in other liberal quarters as well.
But Obama stuck to his guns and didn’t retreat. That’s one reason I was hopeful when he won the presidency. Initially, I wasn’t disappointed. One of his early achievements was the appointment of a debt commission, headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff, Erskine Bowles, and former Republican senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson. Almost all of Congress was opposed to this commission (even the Republicans!), but Obama held his ground. He told Bowles and Simpson to forge ahead and do the right thing.
“When you come out with your report, I’ll back you,” the president said. Bowles and Simpson actually believed him.
Alas, it was not to be. And I’m not sure I know why. Has there ever been a president who built up so much hope before abandoning his own public policy troops while they are still in the thick of battle?
Bowles and Simpson reported their bipartisan findings in the fall of 2010. As David Brooks wrote in The New York Times, there was excitement in the air at the time. A bipartisan group of 65 senators pledged to work to find a solution to the nation’s budget woes. The New York Times created on online budget calculator that allowed readers to find their own solutions. The Peter G. Peterson Foundation got six think tanks to propose their solutions.
Yet there was silence at the White House. When the president gave his State of the Union speech a few months later, you would think he never heard of Bowles or Simpson. When the president’s budget came out a few weeks later, again there was no mention of Bowles or Simpson.
The president didn’t merely lose interest in entitlement reform; he went over to the other side! When House Budget Committee Chairman, Republican Paul Ryan, made proposals similar to Bowles and Simpson, the president invited him to a nationally televised White House speech in which he accused Ryan of abandoning the elderly and even of being un-American. Tragically, the person the president was insulting on national TV was the very person he must negotiate with if entitlement reform is ever going to be a reality.
The president’s defenders will probably try to blame Congress for inaction on our most serious domestic policy problem. Nothing could be further from the truth. During 2011, Capitol Hill produced a “gang of six” and “gang of twelve” — bipartisan efforts to reform entitlements, but with zero guidance from the White House. In addition, there were a slew of bipartisan proposals to reform Medicare, most recently a proposal by Ryan and Democrat Ron Wyden. Congress has signaled in every possible way a willingness to act. The only thing missing has been a president willing to guarantee that serious reform efforts would not be demagogued in the next election.
Defenders of the president will probably also claim that ObamaCare is entitlement reform. On paper they are right. According to the Medicare actuaries, President Obama cut Medicare’s unfunded liability in half the minute he signed the health reform act. Unfortunately, there is no serious cost-cutting reform in ObamaCare — only a plan to cut provider payments to the bone. If they carry it out, say the actuaries, one out of every seven hospitals will be out of business in the next eight years and senior citizens will be lined up behind welfare mothers trying to find a doctor who will see them at community health centers and at the emergency rooms of safety net hospitals.
That’s why no one in Washington takes these cuts seriously — at least when they are talking in private. Plus, we’ve seen this scenario play out before. Doctor payments under Medicare are supposed to be growing no faster than national income, but Congress has stepped in to prevent reductions in doctor fees on nine separate occasions.
Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey was harsh, but accurate when he summed up the state of affairs on Meet the Press last Sunday. Christie told Dave Gregory that when President Obama refused to endorse the Bowles/Simpson report he “showed political cowardice and an absolute fear of confronting the great issues of the day.”
The promise Barack Obama made to the voters was unmistakable. He would put partisan politics aside, bring the two parties together and solve our most important public policy problems.
That is a promise that has not been kept.
John C. Goodman, PhD, is president and CEO of the National Center for Policy Analysis. He is also the Kellye Wright Fellow in health care. His Health Policy Blog is considered among the top conservative health care blogs where health care problems are discussed by top health policy experts from all sides of the political spectrum.