- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

After months of sitting on the sidelines, the White House said Monday that the time is finally ripe for President Obama to lay out his ideas for getting the federal deficit under control later this week when he delivers what the administration is billing as an agenda-setting speech.

While the White House wouldn’t get into specifics of Mr. Obama’s address Wednesday, he is expected to call for a tax increase on wealthier Americans, cuts in military spending, and changes to the nation’s Medicare and Medicaid systems - though aides said he won’t call for cutting benefits.

The speech comes two months after the presidentsent a 2012 budget outline to Capitol Hill that was widely panned by both parties for failing to tackle the big deficit-driving programs such as entitlements and for using so-called gimmicks that the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office rejected.

It also comes one week after House Republicans put out a 2012 budget that calls for an overhaul of entitlement programs, and several months after a bipartisan panel Mr. Obama himself created came up with a deficit-slashing proposal that failed to garner enough votes for congressional consideration.

Mr. Obama kept his distance from that plan, which would have trimmed $4 trillion off the federal tab over the next decade, but his advisers said he is now ready to put forth his own ideas.

“He has been thinking about this for a long time. He telegraphed that in his State of the Union address, and he was thinking about it beforehand,” said White House press secretary Jay Carney. “If there had never been a showdown over a shutdown, if there had never been a dispute over fiscal year 2011 spending, he was committed to addressing our deficits and debt this year, this spring. And he will do that.”

Mr. Carney said the president was waiting for a time when the rest of Washington was willing to hear his message.

“The decision was, putting up a specific plan at that time with a lot of details was a way to reduce your chances of success. … We have an environment now, having dealt with last year’s business, we can move forward and tackle some of these long-term issues,” he said.

Republicans have been calling for broad spending restraints for months and said Mr. Obama’s address is tardy. Democrats, though, generally have balked at spending cuts and have instead pushed for higher revenue through tax increases.

Spending is perhaps the foremost issue in Washington these days, with congressional lawmakers still trying to wrap up the unfinished - and six months overdue - 2011 spending bills, even as the focus is shifting to the 2012 budget and whether to raise the federal borrowing limit beyond $15 trillion.

Republicans have chided Mr. Obama for what they describe as a failure to lead regarding the nation’s debt and deficit problem, and many reacted to word of his speech with skepticism.

“With over $14 trillion in debt, we can’t afford more empty rhetoric from the White House,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican. “The American people won’t accept a speech as a substitute for real presidential leadership to tackle Washington’s spending-fueled debt crisis. But it’s not too late for the president to lay out a concrete plan to confront our runaway debt, fix our broken entitlement programs and reform our tax code for all Americans.”

Several efforts are already under way on Capitol Hill. A group of six senators is working on a grand bargain that would revamp the tax code and impose spending controls in an effort to bring the budget into balance.

And the House Budget Committee last week passed a Republican-written 2012 budget that calls for major changes to the way Medicare and Medicaid operate. Under that plan, Medicare beneficiaries would be allowed to choose from a marketplace of health plans, which could help the government control long-term costs. And Medicaid would be converted to a block-grant program for states to try out.

White House officials have not responded to the House GOP plan at length. However, Mr. Carney said Mr. Obama shares the goals of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, but thinks his budget doesn’t offer a “balanced” approach to problem.