Does Obama Want to Cut Entitlements?

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 11:24 AM EST

Andrew Sullivan is apoplectic about the cowardice of Obama's budget presentation yesterday:

I didn't spend eight years excoriating George "Deficits Don't Matter" Bush to provide excuses for Barack "Default Doesn't Matter" Obama. Like other fiscal conservatives, I'm just deeply disappointed by Obama's reprise of politics as usual - even as the fiscal crisis has worsened beyond measure in the last three years. My point is that actually being honest about the budget and what it will take to resolve its long-term crisis is not political suicide, as Chait says. It's statesmanship. It's what a president is for.

I'm just mystified here. Has any president, ever, used the annual budget as a springboard for a massive change to entitlement programs? Even if Obama wants such changes, this isn't the time or place he'd propose it. He'd propose it separately, as a major initiative completely divorced from the annual budgeting process.

Our budget deficit has skyrocketed over the past three years because of an unprecedented economic crisis. It will shrink as the economy starts to grow again, and it can be brought down to a nearly reasonable level merely by letting the Bush tax cuts expire. The rest will require changes to Medicare, since that's the source of nearly all our long-term problems. But last year's election campaign made it crystal clear that swinging changes to Medicare would be dead on arrival if Obama proposed them now, and deliberately setting forth a proposal doomed to failure would make future action less likely, not more.

I have no crystal ball. I don't know if Obama is truly interested in making historical changes to Medicare and/or Social Security later in his term. But if he is, he'd be a fool to propose them now. The annual budget is just an annual budget, and the process for getting it through the congressional committee process is laborious and well trod — and that laborious and well-trod path most definitely doesn't include the kind of big-time dealmaking necessary for some kind of grand bargain over taxes and entitlements. If you want entitlement reform to disappear without a trace, yesterday would have been a great time to propose it. If you want it for real, you'll wait.

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