Obama: Get off the bench

Even before a member of his own party scolded him on the floor of the U.S. Senate for failing to lead, it was already past time for President Obama to get into the game on budget reform that tackles entitlements and the tax code. He ignored the recommendations of his own debt commission, gave lip service to the burden of mandatory spending in his State of the Union address, and then introduced a budget that confirmed he would indeed dodge the hard stuff. Yet while Obama willfully completed his third strike in another round of politics-as-usual, the unthinkable has happened. All around him, Republicans and Democrats are gripping the third rail, delving openly into a discussion of entitlement reform. Will Obama show the same guts? 

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has approved the inclusion of entitlement reform in the budget House that Republicans will release in April, has offered an unusual olive branch to President Obama. He will refrain from attacking any proposal the president offers to curb entitlement spending. Boehner told The Wall Street Journal that Obama “knows the numbers as well as we do,” but that most Americans “don’t have a clue” that entitlement spending consumes more than half our budget and is the primary driver of our debt. Boehner and House Republicans will seek to educate voters in hopes that “people will be more receptive to what the possible solutions are.”

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A similar effort is under way in the Senate, where a bipartisan “Gang of Six” is advocating entitlement and tax reform and possibly tax increases to address our fiscal crisis. And Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a Democratic leader, declared in a speech Wednesday that discretionary cuts alone won’t reduce the deficit, calling for an “all of the above” approach in budget reform negotiations he said the White House should lead. 

The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that even though only 18 percent of respondents thought cuts to Medicare were necessary to “significantly reduce” the deficit, 62 percent of them thought means-testing Medicare and Social Security was “totally acceptable” and 56 percent supported raising the retirement age for Social Security to 69 by 2075. That is an opening the president must take advantage of, because Republicans will do so with or without him. Republicans are currently winning the optics campaign in the budget battle — producing yet another temporary plan this week to keep the government open before the Democrats have even produced one.

Obama’s refusal to join the growing chorus on curbing mandatory spending opens him up to a steady barrage of criticism from Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who castigated Obama in his floor speech, as well as Republicans. When asked this weekend by Bob Schieffer of CBS News if he thought the president was serious about entitlement reform, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said, despite several conversations with the president, “No, I don’t.”

There is nothing partisan about Republicans insisting that entitlement reform can only pass with the support of both parties and president leadership. And so it is time for President Obama to come to the table, no matter what the left and the labor unions are threatening. When Obama campaigned for his job, he said solving the nation’s worst problems “will take a president who is honest about the challenges we face — who doesn’t just tell everyone what they want to hear, but what they need to hear.”

Republicans and Democrats are now eager to tell Americans about the fiscal challenges we face. President Obama must join in soon so he can lead. If he waits too long, voters will remember that he followed.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.