David Brooks this morning makes more eloquently a point I have touched on many times: The central question facing our nation and its politics is whether and how we can reverse our decline. Brooks, citing a fascinating study by the group Third Way— the best source for new ideas in public policy — notes that one of the central fiscal obstacles to our recovery: spending on maintaining our standard of living — entitlements — now crowds out investments that could raise those standards. The Third Way study makes the dilemma clear: In 1962, we spent 2 1/2 times more on investments than on entitlements; today, we spend three times more on Social Security and Medicare than we do on infrastructure, education, medical research and the like. This study and its facts are an MRI of a nation hitting the skids, and you don't need a degree to read the results. If we don't reverse these trends, it is very simple. The American dream is dead.
Against this stark backdrop of decline and fall, the presidential campaign plays mostly like a sideshow. I had hoped that Paul Ryan's provocative, if misguided Medicare plan, would provide some impetus for President Obama to more confidently embrace Simpson-Bowles or some version of a grand bargain that he has flirted with in the past. So far, we have seen the predictable: the easy trashing of the Ryan plan. But the president has not only a greater obligation but also a greater opportunity. He can make this election about helping the country imagine and then achieve the beginning of our comeback. He can explain the trend lines of decline and how to reverse them. He can save the country from Paul Ryan's atavistic notion of a country where it's every man for himself. He can present a bold, progressive vision of the future where government invests to make this nation great. Otherwise, what is his second term about? Defending an unsustainable status quo? Giving palliative care to the nation on its way out?