President Barack Obama insisted four years ago that the nation must make "hard decisions" to preserve entitlement programs.
But on Monday, the "hard choices" he spoke of on health care and the deficit came with a major caveat: He's not willing to give up much.
"The commitments we make to each other -- through Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security -- these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us," Obama told the cheering crowd as he launched his second term. "They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great."
His inaugural address promised an ambitious progressive agenda -- and laid bare Obama's deeply conflicted relationship with entitlement reform.
He's done just enough to earn credit for trying harder than any other Democratic president to tackle the issue, but he has yet to throw the full weight of his office or his formidable campaign operation behind it. His best chance will come early in his second term as lawmakers confront a series of budget battles, but Obama appears more ready to spend his political capital on guns, immigration and climate change.
The president has never precisely defined what hard choices he would be willing to make on Medicare and Social Security. It's not even clear what he would do if he had the power to remake the programs on his own, without worrying about opposition from Republicans or Democrats.
And though Obama has talked about shared sacrifice from both parties, he has not gotten to the point in deficit negotiations at which he's had to pressure rank-and-file Democratic lawmakers to cross their red line on the sacred issues, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) did with his own party in raising taxes.
Unless Obama seizes the opportunity in the next few months, entitlement reform will hang over his second term, lurking like a legacy-killer if he hands off the task to the next president, deficit hawks warn.
"Either you get a handle on health care and Social Security solvency or he will have a failed presidency," said Alan Simpson, co-chairman of the president's fiscal commission and a former Republican senator from Wyoming. "It is that simple. I don't think he ran for reelection to have a failed presidency."
It certainly wouldn't be for a lack of trying on the issue, White House officials insist.
Obama infuriated Democrats by proposing controversial changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security during his failed 2011 grand-bargain talks with Boehner. The president was ready to make some entitlement concessions in the fiscal cliff negotiations last month, but that effort fizzled, too.
White House officials said if they had a bipartisan deal to sell, they would do so. But with the barometer of White House commitment measured these days in email solicitations, Twitter hashtags and Air Force One miles, entitlement reform has barely registered so far.
Obama is willing to pick up where he and Boehner left off in December, administration officials said, but a deal rests on whether Republicans choose to re-engage as productive negotiating partners.
"The Republican Party talks a big game when it comes to entitlement reform, but when push comes to shove, they lack the courage of their convictions," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said. "They selected the author of their Medicare voucher plan as their vice presidential nominee and then pretended the plan didn't exist and spent millions of dollars attacking Democrats for cuts in Medicare they supported."
The White House's blame-the-GOP approach frustrates deficit hawks.
They know Obama gets it: As more baby boomers enter retirement, entitlement costs will engulf the federal budget, crowding out other priorities. And the longer Washington waits to rein in the programs, the solutions will be that much more draconian.
He pledged during the 2008 campaign to overhaul Medicare and Social Security in his first term, saying he couldn't finish the job in his first two years but "we've got to do it quickly."
As president-elect, Obama said entitlement reform would be "a central part" of his administration's attempts to contain federal spending. And just days before his first Inauguration, as he was pushing for an $800 billion stimulus package, Obama declared that Washington had kicked the can down the road for too long on entitlements.
"We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further," Obama told The Washington Post editorial board. "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's."
Despite the clarity of those early statements, his strategy for shoring up entitlement programs -- and challenging not just Republicans but his own party to get it done -- remains hazy four years later.
Obama dangled an offer in July 2011 to raise the Medicare eligibility age but pulled it from the table during the 2012 fiscal cliff negotiations.
Even though he's never bought into the Republicans' solution on Medicaid -- turning the program into block grants -- his September 2011 deficit proposal would have scaled back federal matching funds to the states, saving $14.9 billion over 10 years.
But the Obama administration put that idea on hold as well. The reason: It needs states to agree to expand Medicaid to cover more uninsured people -- a key part of Obamacare that is now optional for the states after the Supreme Court's ruling on the law. If the administration even hints that it might cut back its Medicaid funds to the states, it will ruin its sales pitch to red states that are already looking for reasons not to broaden their coverage under Obamacare.
Obama also has never detailed a plan to extend the life of Social Security.
Former Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who chaired the Senate Budget Committee, said the president "has tried and tried hard" to strike a grand bargain, but he has fallen short in trying to sell the tough, unpopular medicine to the public. Until he does, it will be hard to persuade Congress to act, he said.
"Congress is a rough reflection of the view of the American people," Conrad said. "The president -- he and all of us -- have not done an effective job of convincing the American people what needs to be done. That is where the president and every elected official has responsibility."
Obama's biggest concession in the last round of budget talks was to move to a less generous inflation calculator for government programs such as Social Security, which would have resulted in benefit cuts.
An entitlements deal never materialized, but the president would have struggled to sell the change to his own party, particularly liberal interest groups that warned Obama in November not to "betray" the millions of Americans who worked for his reelection.
Obama has convinced Democratic congressional leaders that it's better to tackle entitlements under his leadership than leave it up to a Republican successor who would take a far more drastic approach.
But others, such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, say the menu of options put forth by various deficit- reduction commissions -- many championed by Republicans and some by Obama -- simply transfer rising health care costs to seniors.
"The measure of how serious you are about dealing with Medicare shouldn't be how much of the risk and burden you shift to seniors," Van Hollen said. "It is about reducing cost throughout the system."
The fiscal cliff deal, which raised $600 billion in new revenue, may have actually made it more difficult to strike a grand bargain. That's because Republicans aren't willing to consider further tax hikes -- a White House prerequisite to weighing any controversial cuts to entitlements.
Van Hollen said Obama should follow the model of his health care reform law. Proponents note that Obamacare already extends the solvency of Medicare -- according to its trustees -- by slowing the growth of the program's spending. But it does so by trimming payments to health care providers and private plans, not by changing the structure of the program.
Judging from his speech Monday, Obama appears ready to push the liberal point of view rather than the more centrist tone he struck for much of the past two years.
"We, the people, still believe that every citizen deserves a basic measure of security and dignity," Obama said. "We must make the hard choices to reduce the cost of health care and the size of our deficit. But we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future."
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