PREPARING HIMSELF and the country for coming budget battles with congressional Republicans, President Obama has embarked on a speech-making tour of the nation, focused on economic issues. week, he gave the first three addresses, lasting a total of about two hours, with the common theme of a “better shot” for the middle class. He made familiar but welcome references to science and research, crucial infrastructure and making college more affordable. The president was on especially strong ground when he called out colleges that fail to control their costs. “Families and taxpayers can’t just keep paying more and more and more into an undisciplined system,” he said.
But Mr. Obama’s speeches so far are notable mainly for what they haven’t included: a serious proposal for straightening out the federal government’s long-term fiscal situation.
By the tendentious standards of politics, it was okay for the president to challenge Republicans to come up with better ideas than his, while simultaneously portraying most of them as mindlessly bent on a government shutdown. What’s rather less forgivable, however, is that, even though the president of the United States is well into a highly promoted series of major addresses on the future of the U.S. economy, searching the text of his speeches for “entitlement reform” or “entitlement” yields nothing but “phrase not found.”
Yes, Mr. Obama told Democrats that they “can’t just stand pat and just defend whatever government is doing.” Addressing Republicans, he pronounced himself “ready to work” on tax reform, or a “balanced, long-term fiscal plan that replaces the mindless cuts currently in place.”
But that’s a far cry from leveling with the public about the fact that Social Security, Medicare and the rest are crowding out other domestic priorities — including those that the president emphasized in his speeches — and that these programs are at the heart of the country’s long-term fiscal challenges, which have still not been addressed even as the deficit has declined in the short term.
Absent that kind of candor, Mr. Obama’s demand for “a long-term American strategy, based on steady, persistent effort, to reverse the forces that have conspired against the middle class for decades” rang hollow.
It’s true, as the president says, that House Republicans seem more interested in feeding their base red meat — spending cuts, Obamacare repeal — than in striking a grand bargain on the budget. But he’s also making it easier for them to get away with this by indulging in his own evasions.
As president, Mr. Obama is the one player in the capital’s drama best positioned to represent the national interest on entitlement reform; as a second-term president, he is also in the best position to take the political heat for doing so. It is still possible that he will do so in his remaining speeches. Until then, though, Mr. Obama’s vision for the country can only be described as incomplete.