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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Obama has chosen not to lead on the deficit

IN HIS STATE of the Union address Tuesday night, President Obama failed to present a credible plan for long-term debt reduction. It's no secret that we think he made a big mistake. If America can't get a handle on its finances, everything else is at risk: military strength, the safety net for the poor, the ability to invest for future economic growth. But now that the president has punted, is there any conceivable path toward fiscal sanity?

Last year it seemed the president had set out on such a path. He appointed a bipartisan commission to study the debt, the idea being that it could propose solutions that everyone knows are needed but that are so politically charged neither party dares propose them first. And the commission, chaired by Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Alan Simpson, came through: It produced a credible plan that won support from key members of both parties. Mr. Obama could have embraced the results without accepting every facet of them and challenged congressional leaders to do the same, with the goal of fashioning a debt-reduction plan that would reassure markets and international lenders.

The president took a cagier route. He hailed the commission's "important progress" without endorsing any of its recommendations. He acknowledged that the government will have to raise taxes, but said it in such a convoluted way - referring to the need to cut "spending through tax breaks and loopholes" - that no one could possibly understand. He pledged a willingness to reform Social Security, but "without slashing benefits for future generations" - phrasing that conceivably left him room to reduce benefits, below some slash threshold known only to him, while sounding as though he opposes any cuts at all.

What could explain such cynicism? One theory would be that Mr. Obama doesn't agree about the seriousness of the problem. (Continues here)

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