Obama’s Broken Promises

I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. But like a lot of Americans, I was hopeful about his presidency.

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.

22 replies »

  1. Reality is that Obama has basically been GB-lite and eerily resembles what Shrub did in the 2nd half of his 2nd term. Something GOP members and Democrats don’t want to hear either.

  2. The public gets the representation it deserves. JFK’s statement “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” has deteriorated into the deepest bowels of septic systems across the land.

    If people cared, we would not have the entrenched soulless wretch of party spokespeople we see day after day after year after decade after generation.

    And many commenters here are just representative of the population. Responsible leadership and representation is never about party first. Show me anyone in state or federal government who say anything without consulting the party hierarchy first.

    PPACA should be flushed and make EVERYONE show up to work and not leave until a bill of appropriate substance and full input is crafted that helps and screws everyone equally. Because legislating health care will both help and screw people. No exceptions!!!

  3. Its always good for a laugh thought to read Goodman’s post chastising the left for a lack of being pragmatic or being partisan when his own posts are filled with partisan comments & half-truths and outright lies including whoppers like one (Republican Paul Ryan, made proposals similar to Bowles and Simpson).

  4. Bowles-Simpson really was the missed opportunity by Obama. Simpson really represents the ‘old guard’ GOP who wasn’t actually opposed to revenue increases (e.g., tax increases) and curtailing defense spending if in engage he got real spending cuts & legit entitlement reform.

    As a Democrat generally and a person who would have absorbed most of the cuts to Medicare (one thing that never gets mentioned is that not a single reform including Ryan’s has called for any kind of sacrifice for Boomers who are 55 and older), I generally supported most of what was in Bowles-Simpson.

    I recognize that Medicare as currently constructed is not sustainable over the long-term. Also recognize that some of the popular deductions that Americans love including the mortgage-interest deduction need to be modified & changed.

    What neither party wants to really challenge is the now 1,000+ tax credit/deductions written into the tax code. Both parties are addicted to them like heroin junkies to smack. That’s the real challenge. The other issue is that the Boomers in this country on both the left & right are incredibly partisan and don’t want to give anything up. The left wants no real reform on entitlements & large tax increases. The right wants no reform on entitlements that effects them including Medicaid cuts on elderly care, doesn’t want to pay for things, and is all to content to borrow to avoid tax increases.

    Neither party right now has a semi-coherent vision necessary for reform & I have pretty much come to the opinion that real reform and shared sacrifice in the US is impossible given the current dynamics in US politics. It is going to take a disaster/calamity that forces change to get anywhere. Kind of like the crumbling infrastructure in PA where I live. Despite the record number of bridges in failing shape, nothing is being done to address it as the transportation budget gets slashed again, there is no help coming from the federal transportation budget, and taxpapyers are unwilling to pay marginal fee increases on licenses and tolls to upgrade it.

    We might get some of the ‘private partnerships’ which have been a mixed bag at best but the only time we will get real reform on the issue is when a major bridge collapses and you have a fair amount of people die & get injured. America has always been like that to a degree but it is definitely a pretty extreme of where we are at now in comparison to our history.

    Even in Philly which has crumbling national gas pipelines owned by the Philadelphia Gas Works, there have been several gas explosions/ruptures that have killed people but since it typically hasn’t been wealthy people and it is one-off incidents it doesn’t arouse the slumbering American population. It is going to take a hammer to a large’s number of people’s heads to really get action on anything substantial.

    The other disheartening thing is that increasingly you get the real sense that ‘justice’ is broken in this country. Mortgage deal that Obama just cut is the latest example of that. It is naked power politics to ensure he stays in power even if it lets the banks literally buy justice and buy justice cheaply. It is a backdoor prop up to the banks especially BOA which Obama can’t afford to have hit a real speed bunk but if you really look at it is insolvent & needs for campaign contributions for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Been waiting for mortgage fraud convictions to come down from the Feds when Obama took over the DOJ and they will never really come at this point. Settlement pretty much assured that. Buying justice and buying it cheap. Sold to the public as a populist move. Kind of thing you see in a banana republic which the US is gradually drifting more and more towards.

    People in America are pretty disheartened and with very good reason.

  5. It is a little of both but the House has been deplorable by any measure. Least amount of confirmations in nearly a century and one of the least active Congresses too in terms of legislation passed. House GOP leaders have done all they can to make sure literally that nothing happens with gov’t legislation and agencies locked in amber until the election. It is a big reason why there ratings are also gone done the toilet since ’10 midterms. Basically talking approval rates in the high teens now.

  6. During the debt ceiling negotiations, Congressional Democrats and the President offered concessions more drastic than Bowles-Simpson, with less revenue increases than Bowles-Simpson recommended. Including “the Biden plan” and direct negotiations between the House Speaker and the President (if that isn’t guidance from the White House, what is?”) These plans included entitlement reform–the Democratic side of “the Grand Bargain” and the political damaging, but necessary reforms, the President mentioned repeatedly. But in the end, the new “Tea Party” conservatives wouldn’t budge on revenues.

    There are few things I see more partisan than Mr. Goodman.

  7. Good grief. Myths abound, because they help keep cognitive dissonance below a suicidal level.

    The elected leaders are held accountable, which is why they are re-elected 90% of the time. They actually do exactly what they are sent to Washington to do, which is to get more money for their district. Pay attention to your Congressional elections in your local media: constant variations on “I’m fighting for YOU”, from both parties. This is nothing more than a promise to get YOU more money.

    It’s a myth that politicians are corrupted by Washington. They get elected on a corrupt premise, and then diligently and passionately carry it out. It’s a myth that the people elect officials to “get things done” or “solve the nations problems”. All those phrases mean for most voters is “preserve my benefits and lower my taxes”.

    Incumbents are not going to be turned out en masse. Individually, their power to earmark dollars for their district grows over time. It is a perfectly corrupt process. The inconvenient truth is that the electorate is corrupt, and always has been, and always will be. That we cannot allow ourselves to think this thought simply highlights how superficial we think.

    It’s a myth that something has changed or is changing to make the country “ungovernable” — it was never governable, in the sense in which you mean the word here in the 21st century. The only thing that has evolved is the meaning of the word “govern”. Our republic was not designed to control and order the countryside from a central seat of power. It is working, or not working, just like it was designed.

    Morally broken? Since when? Has anybody read the political debates from the 1780’s? Of the Greek city-states? People have not changed. In general, people want something for nothing. Review the many posts on this blog from people who feel deep in their moral sense that it is unjust that they have to find a way to pay for their own healthcare. Interrogate their moral theory: who should pay? Answer: someone else. “Society.” “We.” (Every theorist has their black box, where the machinery that has not been figured out can be imagined to sit. For the modern social engineer, the black box is “we”. It actually means something like “they”.)

    That this can be done is nothing more than a wish.

    Perennial disappointment and “despair” might mean that we haven’t tried hard enough, or found the smartest people, or add in your bromide here. But it might also mean that the project is founded on a mistaken premise. It’s in fact a very recent and utterly unproven idea that “society” has the ability to re-distribute by force all the wealth in “society” so that everyone has what they need. I suggest it is new not because the ancients were too crude to think it, but because we’ve just gotten superficial enough to think it.

    So be disappointed with ObamaBushClintonReagenCarterFord…then do it again, full of hope. It passes the time, as well as bread and circuses.

    , in the sense that a Board governs a company. The Consti

  8. Today Harry was able to block debate on religious freedom. He must either keep invisible or be part of Obama’s “do nothing Congress”.

  9. He is the MINORITY leader. Harry Reid has been invisable since the 2010 midterm.

  10. If you’re not by now “cynical and depressed,” you’ve not been paying attention. I, for one, am no reflexive cheerleader for any side. It sadly look like our country is becoming ungovernable.

  11. When you read these kind of blog entries, and then especially when you see the replies, it is hard not to be come cynical and depressed. People are more concerned about how their man fares in comparison to the other side than they are in holding our elected leaders accountable. If they can show that the other side did the same thing or worse, they are happy. HAPPY! It is unbelievable sometimes. Why are you all so afraid to disagree with your man? Ah, because then you would be torn apart by the other partisans – they might even call you a republican sympathizer. For shame.

  12. I was disappointed that he did not back Simpson-Bowles, which Ryan voted against. When they write books on his presidency, I hope we learn why he did not back it. OTOH, it did have revenue increases. I find it difficult to believe the GOP would really have voted for it.


  13. “That is a promise that has not been kept.”

    And, Mitch McConnell has been making certain that it would not be.

  14. So what is worse, a person telling you to your face they don’t care about your needs or concerns, or, another person telling you they care and would help, but then never show up to actually assist?

    To me this is what are Republicans versus Democrats. The former don’t care about the average citizen, and they basically say so. Democrats, their hypocrisy borders on spectacularly disgusting and offensive these past 5 plus years. Seeing pelosi and Reid truly nauseates me.

    Reading what the author above wrote just reinforces my passion to see all incumbents of more than 10 years hit the pavement January 2013. How that happens is not my concern or interest. Retirement or death seem just wishful thinking!