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Obama, where are those ‘hard truths’ you promised?

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During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly said he would tell Americans the hard truths — not what “you want to hear but . . . what you need to hear.”

On the most vexing challenge facing the country — how not to go bankrupt — he hasn’t lived up to the promise.

I’m not talking about Exhibit A in the Republican indictment, which is the rapid rise in the deficit over the past two years. Given the economy he inherited, Obama would have been derelict not to increase spending.

But when it comes to what has to be said and done for long-term fiscal responsibility, the president has chosen easier politics over harder truths.

His signature achievement is a health-care bill that represents, happily, a major step toward universal health care and contains some hopeful seeds of cost control. But it is also the biggest new entitlement since Medicare with little new revenue to support it. The bill does include a watered-down version of a tax on high-priced employer-provided health-care plans, but even that won’t take effect until after a second Obama term would be over.

As Congress considered naming a bipartisan fiscal commission with statutory teeth, Obama was AWOL, though presidential lobbying might have made a difference. When the toothless commission that he subsequently appointed unexpectedly coalesced around a fiscal plan that managed to attract support ranging from Dick Durbin on the left to Tom Coburn on the right, Obama refused to lend it a hand.

When Republican Paul Ryan offered his own long-term plan, Obama responded with a speech that was more a prelude to the 2012 election than a plausible invitation to negotiation.

And throughout, the president has stuck to the position, belied by his own budget numbers, that his vision of government is affordable without raising taxes on anyone but the rich.

Now the conventional wisdom in Washington has it that the presidential campaign has begun and we shouldn’t expect any serious progress toward debt reduction until 2013.

And, as if on cue, Republican candidate Tim Pawlenty is promising, yes, hard truths.

“I could promise that we can eliminate a $14 trillion debt, create jobs for 10 million people, restructure Social Security and health care, all without making any tough decisions,” he said as he prepared to announce his campaign. “Or, I could try something different. I could just tell you the truth.”

That was less than a month ago. Last week, Pawlenty offered an economic plan that set a modern-day record for wishful thinking.

It counts on a rate of growth far higher than the U.S. economy has ever sustained in the modern era. It proposes flattening and lowering income tax rates, but without — as has always been the case with flat-tax proposals — taking away any of the special-interest subsidies and deductions built into the tax code. Altogether, as Ruth Marcus reported last week, the Pawlenty plan could cost more than $11 trillion over the next 10 years.

So much for “tough decisions.”

Pawlenty’s fictions are particularly disappointing because, as a former two-term governor of a purple state, he entered the race understanding the difference between governing and pandering. Now he has set a bar of irresponsibility to which his rivals will feel pressure to stoop.

And as the incumbent has discovered, irresponsible campaign promises don’t magically fade upon election. There’s no guarantee that Obama would have behaved differently as president had he not promised during the campaign never to raise taxes on the middle class or laced into John McCain’s sensible proposal to tax employer-provided health care. But there’s no doubt that both campaign stances limited his freedom in office.

There are meaningful philosophical divisions between the parties, and campaigns are important to draw distinctions and fight them out. But most Americans aren’t extreme left or right. They wouldn’t be satisfied with the services they would get from a government spending only 18 percent of GDP, as Pawlenty proposes, but they don’t want Obama’s 25 percent either.

The hard truth, in other words, is that there will have to be compromise. Should we be soothed by those who tell us it is likely to be achieved in 2013? When the time comes, the same people will be pointing out that Obama is a lame duck, or that the new Republican president is shackled by promises that saw him or her through the primaries. And the 2014 election will be looming.

We are always somewhere in the election cycle. Compromise will require a leader to put the national interest first, to take a chance on delivering hard truths, not just promising them. That will be no easier, and no less risky, in 2013 than it is today.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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