June 14, 2012

I had high hopes for President Obama’s speech on the economy. But instead of going to Ohio on Thursday with a compelling plan for the future, the president gave Americans a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy.

The falsehood is that he has been serious about cutting government spending. The fallacy is that this election will be some sort of referendum that will break the logjam in Washington.

Fallacy first. “Both parties have laid out their policies on the table for all to see,” Obama said. “What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate.”

He’s right about the stalemate. But he’s absolutely wrong that November offers an opportunity to break it. No scenario shows either party with a chance of amassing a solid governing majority of the sort Obama had when he took office. The way to break the stalemate is through compromise, not conquest.

And that leads to the falsehood. Despite his claim that “both parties have laid out their policies on the table,” Obama has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government’s finances.

“My own deficit plan would strengthen Medicare and Medicaid for the long haul by slowing the growth of health-care costs — not shifting them to seniors and vulnerable families,” Obama said. “And my plan would reduce our yearly domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in nearly 60 years.”

That’s incorrect. As Politifact has pointed out, Obama’s claim that he would reduce annual domestic spending to a percentage of gross domestic product not seen in 60 years is true only if you don’t count the enormous spending on programs such as Medicare. (Obama presumably means he would cut domestic discretionary spending to a 60-year low, a lesser boast.)

Of more concern is Obama’s nonsensical claim that he has a deficit plan that would strengthen Medicare for the long haul. He has called for doubling Medicare spending over the next 10 years, to nearly $1 trillion in 2022. His cuts in the rate of growth amount to just a few percentage points. As The Post’s Lori Montgomery has reported, the president’s 2013 budget marked “the second year in a row Obama has ignored calls to restructure Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs.”

Nothing in Obama’s speech came close to a proposal to fix the debt problem; he dealt with that only at the end of the 54-minute address — largely by complaining about Republicans’ refusal to consider higher taxes on the wealthy.

Obama alleged, correctly, that Republicans’ refusal to countenance tax increases scuttled the Bowles-Simpson plan and the Senate’s Gang of Six plan. He argued, also correctly, that Republicans’ refusal to budge on taxes is “the biggest source of gridlock in Washington today.” He’s on solid ground, too, in saying Republicans would end Medicare as we know it.

But none of that is going to help Obama, because he hasn’t come up with a viable alternative. It isn’t enough to claim that the other guys have a bad plan (though they do). As Democratic strategists Stan Greenberg and James Carville wrote in a memo widely discussed last week, Obama needs a “new narrative” that “focuses on what we will do to make a better future for the middle class.”

Instead, Obama’s speech was a rehash of earlier proposals — such as sending more Americans to community college and spending more on clean energy. Those plans for additional spending would be more credible if he had a plausible plan to reform entitlement spending, the biggest driver of future debt.

Undoubtedly, Obama would take heat from his base if he put forth a serious plan along the lines of Bowles-Simpson, whose recommendations he never quite embraced. Doing so would also blunt his political advantage as the defender of Medicare from Republican marauders.

But taking a stand on concrete fixes for the nation’s fiscal problems would get Obama credit for strong leadership — and he would be able to tell the new economic narrative Americans crave. There’s even the remote chance that taking such a gamble would bring Republicans to the table.

Early in 2010, Obama told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he’d “rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president.” Now he is acting in the opposite manner: hoping to limp to a second term without addressing the looming debt crisis — which, as JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon told Congress last week, has contributed to today’s economic malaise.

Even at this late stage, Obama should take a risk. The election, whatever the result, won’t make things any easier.

danamilbank@washpost.com

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000.