- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Of all the things President Obama pledges to do, probably the most difficult to achieve will be reforming the nation’s runaway entitlement programs - Social Security and Medicare - guarded as they are by a legion of older people that is about to get even larger and less tractable.

Yet without serious adjustments and cooperation from this and other special interests that so far have been unwilling to give an inch, reversing these programs’ looming financial disaster will be impossible. Chances are probably 50-50 that Mr. Obama will be left with the same frustrations that caused predecessors so much heartburn.

Ronald Reagan, for instance, after suffering major political blood loss for merely recommending minor changes aimed at curtailing the growth of Social Security, told his chief advisers never to mention the programs again. Over the years, nearly every president since Dwight Eisenhower has counted among his most prominent failures the inability to tame these twin monsters, whose voracious appetites now stimulated by the advent of old-age Baby Boomers threatens to bankrupt the government.

The combined programs make up nearly 8 percent of the gross domestic product. Two years from now, Social Security will begin taking in less revenue than it pays out, forcing it to begin using reserves expected to be depleted 35 years from now. Meanwhile, a steadily increasing number of workers will be needed to support one retiree. The situation in Medicare is even more critical, exacerbated by medical costs that seem immune to downward adjustment. Medicare is approaching a 2019 deadline for insolvency.

Over the years, new chief executives have tackled the entitlement problems with optimism, appointing so-called blue-ribbon panels of experts and political heavyweights to find a solution. The last of these was commissioned by President Bill Clinton and headed by then-Sens. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat, and John Danforth, Missouri Republican. The panel provided important recommendations that ultimately ended in the same dustbin of good intentions as the other efforts.

No matter what party controls Congress, there seems to be a constitutional inability to deal with these politically explosive programs. After years of boosting benefits, but doing little to pay for them, lawmakers took the annual pressure off themselves by adopting a yearly cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security, a decision that almost collapsed the program during the runaway inflation of the mid-1970s.

Congressional reluctance to take much more than an innocuous corrective step is understandable. The power of the senior-citizen lobby, aided by insurance and medical interests, has been daunting. And frightening older voters about the possible loss of their safety net became a standard of political campaigning no candidate wished to face.

Then why should one think Mr. Obama can make a difference? After all, Democrats have been playing the “anti-Social Security” card against Republicans almost since the program’s inception during the Franklin Roosevelt administration. George W. Bush’s proposal to allow the privatization of some Social Security contributions was flattened by a steamroller of political protest. But then, so were Bill Clinton’s efforts to bring the benefits into balance.

One reason to hope is Mr. Obama’s correct assessment that the success of economic recovery must be tied to controlling entitlement growth. Another is the fact that these are perilous times requiring the steady hand of a strong, unblemished Democratic president. Just as it took a Republican, Richard Nixon, to open the way to China, a Democrat is more likely to bring these programs in line and halt the fiscally ruinous spiral of growth.

The new president has indicated he is willing to do this by putting political considerations aside and placing reform on the list of those things urgently needed to wrench the economy from the throes of disaster. It won’t be easy and may not even be possible on a grand scale. But any progress at all would bring lasting benefits. Success will depend on whether Mr. Obama’s willingness to expend political capital here is matched by his allies in Congress.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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