Video: Fixing Social Security and Medicare

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/13/2009 6:40:53 AM ET 2009-02-13T11:40:53

The commitments that President Barack Obama did not make during last year’s campaign could end up being as significant over the next four years as the promises that he did. Now that he is president, those unmade commitments give him room to maneuver.

Like reading the spaces between tea leaves, vows left unsaid by a candidate can provide important clues on which areas a president considers to be politically untenable to pursue.

In Obama’s case, his refusal to make firm commitments on policy matters with far-reaching implications — such as the U.S. military deployment to Afghanistan, judicial nominees and the future of the big-ticket entitlement programs — suggest he sees them as potentially troublesome, or that he simply wanted to use his mandate with maximum freedom.

He had every reason to be confident that he would have a mandate: Most polls in key states, such as Wisconsin and Colorado, showed him far ahead of Republican John McCain as early as June, a lead he never lost.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that Obama will probably make his decision on sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this week or next. Gates said he’d be wary of sending more than 30,000 forces to Afghanistan, in addition to the nearly 40,000 already there.

Despite the skittishness of many Democratic members of Congress over the prospect of a military commitment in Afghanistan that would last for the next four years, candidate Obama never pledged to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by a certain date, as he pledged to pull out U.S. forces from Iraq.

He made his stance clearer in his press conference Monday night.

Video: Troubled times in Afghanistan “I do not have yet a timetable for how long” it will take to ensure that terrorists have no safe havens in Afghanistan, he said.

Obama noted that last week he met with some of the survivors of people who were killed in the Sept. 11 attacks, “a reminder of the costs of allowing those safe havens to exist. My bottom line is that we cannot allow al-Qaida to operate. We cannot have those safe havens in that region.”

Congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have expressed worry about the open-ended nature of the U.S. deployment.  The question Democrats will face this year or next is whether they will vote to approve the military spending to pay for Obama’s Afghan deployment — or whether they will challenge their president on a critical national security question.

Appoint some Republicans to the courts
Obama has the opportunity to reshape the federal bench: 62 vacancies await him, including 15 appeals court judgeships. They are especially significant, because most cases are decided by the appeals courts and never make it to the Supreme Court.

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Track President Barack Obama's promisesA theme of Obama’s campaign last year was his promise to be bipartisan, or as he said on the night he won the Iowa caucuses, “to move beyond the bitterness and pettiness and anger that's consumed Washington.” But will his promise of bipartisanship extend to his court choices?

One way for the president to demonstrate bipartisanship would be to do what his predecessor George W. Bush did as a conciliatory move when he first took office in 2001: appoint a judge from the other party to the bench.

In 2001, in his first group of nominees to appeals court vacancies, Bush included Roger Gregory, a Bill Clinton nominee whom Republican senators had stymied for months before Clinton gave him a temporary recess appointment.

There’s no record of Obama pledging during the campaign that he would appoint Republicans to the bench.

A way to demonstrate bipartisanship
The Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal editorial pages and Sen. Arlen Specter, R- Pa., the senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, have urged Obama to demonstrate bipartisanship by nominating a few Republicans to vacancies on the bench.

The Times editorial focused on one Bush nominee whom Democrats never gave a chance to get a vote in the Judiciary Committee, Peter Keisler.  “Re-nominating Keisler could signal the beginning of a long overdue truce in the judge wars,” the Times said.

But Nan Aron, president of the advocacy group Alliance for Justice, which opposed many Bush judicial nominees, dissents from this view.

“Unlike Roger Gregory, the nominees they’re talking about, such as Keisler, never had bipartisan support,” she said.

Aron said there’s no reason to think Obama’s judicial nominees won’t enjoy bipartisan support. But, she added, “I would think they (Obama and his aides) would want to make their own picks rather than rely on those of George W. Bush.”

As the Congressional Budget Office and other fiscal experts keep reminding us, the two giant entitlement programs, Medicare and Social Security, enroll millions of new beneficiaries and pay ever larger benefits every year. Together they cost more than $1 trillion last year, accounting for 36 percent of all federal outlays.

In the second presidential debate, when moderator Tom Brokaw asked Obama whether he’d reform Medicare and Social Security within two years of taking office, he said, “We're going to have to take on entitlements, and I think we've got to do it quickly .... I can't guarantee that we're going to do it in the next two years, but I'd like to do (it) in my first term as president.”

But he did not explain what he meant by the words “take on entitlements.”

During the campaign Obama left it unclear whether, if elected president, he’d call for cuts in spending on Medicare and Social Security or at least a reduction in the share that they take of the budget.

After the election, Obama gets more specific
Once the election was over he got more specific. On Jan. 15, five days before taking the oath of office, in an interview with Washington Post, Obama said he and Congress could no longer “kick the can” of entitlement reform “down the road.”

"We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's," he said.

"Social Security, we can solve," he added. "The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable. ... We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system."

That comment seemed to indicate Obama is not inclined to adopt the simpler, if politically risky, approaches that the Congressional Budget Office has recently analyzed, such as gradually raising the age at which people become eligible to receive Medicare benefits from 65 to 67. Such a reform would save taxpayers more than $85 billion over 10 years, according to the CBO analysis.

Gene Steuerle, a former Treasury Department official who is now vice president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, which advocates entitlement reform, said the massive spending on the stimulus and the costs of keeping the financial sector afloat only add more urgency to the need to reduce the long–term entitlement burden on the taxpayers.

“The federal government has promised more than it can deliver” in the form of future entitlement benefits, Steuerle said, and “now it has added to the promises” by pledging trillions of dollars to resuscitate the economy.

“Before the election, when I ran the numbers, it became apparent that if you add together Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defense spending and interest payments on the debt, you have used up all the expected revenue the federal government is going to collect,” Steuerle said.

Assuming most of the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 are left in place, there will be insufficient revenue to pay for discretionary items, such as worker retraining or national parks, he said.

'Very encouraging' signs from Obama
Maya MacGuineas, the president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and former policy advisor to the 2000 McCain campaign, said she finds it “very encouraging” that Obama has indicated since the election that he is serious about reining in entitlement spending.

A revealing moment will come when Obama and his advisers submit his fiscal year 2010 budget proposal, due in a few weeks. If they choose not to say something specific about Medicare and Social Security changes in their budget submission, MacGuineas said, “it will be harder to believe they plan to do entitlement reform, at least in the near future.”

With a decision imminent on Afghanistan troop deployments, his fiscal 2010 budget proposal due soon and vacant judgeships awaiting action, Obama will be beginning to shape his presidency. And his performance on issues where he’s made no previous pledges may be just as revealing as the promises kept or those left unfulfilled.

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