The moment arrives for President Obama to pitch fiscal responsibility

Monday, January 24, 2011

"WE CAN no longer afford to leave the hard choices for the next budget, the next administration or the next generation." This was what President Obama had to say when he unveiled his budget - two years ago. We quoted his statement again last year, as the president released the fiscal 2011 budget, as a reminder of the central, unmet challenge facing the administration. We return to it because the problem of mounting debt is even more urgently true today. Time is running out for Mr. Obama to propose those hard choices and, more important, to fight for their adoption and implementation. We do not doubt the sincerity of his concern about the nation's precarious fiscal state. But we remain unpersuaded, and increasingly concerned, about the seriousness of his resolve to do something about it.

This is the moment of testing. As Mr. Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he faces irreconcilable pressures from within his own party and from a newly resurgent Republican opposition. Conservatives insist on massive and immediate spending cuts but refuse to consider raising needed revenue. Liberals declare that entitlement benefits must remain untouched. Both extremes are wrong. Large spending cuts now would damage a still-faltering recovery. Cuts are necessary - but the debt cannot be safely or fairly tackled on the spending side alone, as numerous assessments, including the president's own commission on fiscal responsibility, have concluded. At the same time, the government cannot afford to pay all the entitlement benefits to all the people to whom it has promised them. Sensible adjustments now will avoid the need for greater injury later and can be accomplished in a way that protects those in greatest need.

Mr. Obama has, so far, been willing to say . . . none of this. Instead of acknowledging flatly that tax revenue must go up, he has hewed to his campaign position that the bulk of the tax cuts pressed by President George W. Bush under very different fiscal circumstances must remain in place - permanently. His version of entitlement reform has been entitlement expansion, in the form of the new health-care law. This offers the certainty of new spending on expanded coverage and the prospect - tantalizing enough to risk but risky enough to remain worrisome - of steps that would slow the overall trajectory of health-care spending. No one has been asked to sacrifice. On the contrary, the default impulse has been to solve political differences by taking out the checkbook: an extension of tax cuts for the wealthy here, a payroll tax holiday there.

The president was able to punt on providing a detailed approach to the debt last year by appointing the fiscal responsibility commission. Since the commission produced its proposal, he has avoided any comment on the details of its prescriptions. That grace period ends with Tuesday night's speech and the budget that will follow next month. The commission's proposal was not perfect - but managed to win the support of Republican senators for fundamental tax reform that would raise revenue. It managed to win Democratic support for Social Security reform, including raising the retirement age. Will the president be equally bold? Can he afford not to be?

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