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From President Obama, Economic Clarity but Little Courage

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

PRESIDENT Obama's speech on the economy yesterday was, on many fronts, very good. He explained with clarity the causes of the economic meltdown. He pushed back on faulty arguments from the right that stimulus spending is irresponsible and from the left that money shouldn't be funneled to the banks. He avoided unwarranted optimism about recovery -- particularly important if he has to ask Congress for another round of stimulus or bailout spending -- without being so bearish as to talk the economy down. He made the case that helping Wall Street is necessary for helping Main Street, even discussing the "multiplier effect" -- how one dollar spent in the right place can lead to multiple dollars making their way through the economy. You couldn't help feeling relief at the competence and calm the president conveyed.

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It is all the more disappointing, then, when Mr. Obama overstates his case in one crucial area and loses all candor and courage in another. The overstating comes in linking his policy agenda to the economic recovery. The agenda focuses on education, renewable energy and health care. These are all worthy pursuits, areas where we support many of his proposals. But as his admirable summation of recent history made clear, these pursuits have little to do with the economic crisis, and they are not the key to economic recovery. The recovery will result from successfully transitioning away from an economy overly dependent on debt and the American consumer, unclogging the banking system, stabilizing housing -- and dealing with the fiscal imbalances facing the country that were bad before, are worse now and, if left unattended, could well cause the next crisis.

Mr. Obama spoke eloquently about this, too. "Along with defense and interest on the national debt, the biggest costs in our budget are entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security that get more and more expensive every year," he said. "So if we want to get serious about fiscal discipline -- and I do -- then . . . we will also have to get serious about entitlement reform."

But that is the one area where Mr. Obama in fact seems to lack all seriousness -- where the candor and courage go missing. Many of the savings identified in the president's budget are phony, and the real ones are used to offset the costs of his new spending increases or tax cuts. He maintained yesterday that "health care reform is entitlement reform." But the health-care savings he has identified are all directed to new health-care spending, and, even then, they cover only a fraction of the likely costs of a health-care bill -- of what would become yet another entitlement program. Meanwhile, the keys to fixing Social Security are well known and far easier than health-care reform, but Mr. Obama yesterday deferred that challenge to some vanishing point on the horizon: "Once we tackle rising health-care costs, we must also work to put Social Security on firmer footing."

We understand that spending more on education, energy and health care is an easy sell to a Democratic Congress, while deficit reduction and entitlement reform are hard. We thought the president had signed up for both.

Do you have a different view of this issue? Debate a member of the editorial board today in the Editorial Judgment discussion group.


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