Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 16, 2009

ENTITLEMENTS.... Barack Obama stopped by the Washington Post's offices yesterday and covered a lot of ground with reporters and editors. There was one subject of particular interest -- the Post's front-page headline read: "Obama Pledges Entitlement Reform."

There was, I think it's fair to say, a collective "uh oh" among progressives everywhere. Once we start hearing about "entitlement reform," it generally means some kind of effort to weaken Social Security.

As it turns out, Obama's comments on the subject weren't troubling at all.

Five days before taking office, Obama was careful not to outline specific fixes for Social Security and Medicare, refusing to endorse either a new blue-ribbon commission or the concept of submitting an overhaul plan to Congress that would be subject only to an up-or-down vote, similar to the one used to reach agreement on the closure of military bases.

But the president-elect exuded confidence that his economic team will succeed where others have not.

"Social Security, we can solve," he said, waving his left hand. "The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable.... We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system."

Obama's exactly right. Though it probably didn't please the Post's editors -- Fred Hiatt, I'm looking in your direction -- Obama was right to dismiss concerns over Social Security with a wave of his hand. There is, to borrow a phrase from 2005, no crisis.

What's more, Obama's take on Medicare was even more encouraging. Not only is it "the big problem," but the only sensible way of addressing it is in the context of systemic reform. The problem is not with the program, but with the way we pay for healthcare. As Jonathan Cohn noted, "Fix health care and you can fix Medicare -- which, by the way, is what Obama has promised all along."

What's odd, though, is the way the Post characterized all of this. As Matt Yglesias noted, the lede of the front-page piece read, "President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare 'bargain' with the American people, saying that the nation's long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs."

The substance of that is misleading, but more importantly, that's not what Obama said -- at least, that's not what the Post reported him as saying.

Steve Benen 2:40 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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Is Deborah Howell gone yet? Or is the Post merely reacting to the fact that Obama has gotten more good press than bad lately, and it's a journalistic obligation to even that out.

Posted by: Danp on January 16, 2009 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

That's not a news lede - that's a classic Hiatt hallucination.

I swear, the Post is making the Washington Times redundant.

Posted by: Yellow Dog on January 16, 2009 at 3:20 PM | PERMALINK

Obama should come out and call the Post headline misleading because it is getting picked up around the country, raising blood pressures and doing nothing to help the economy. To the contrary everyone who is over 40 and might be inclined to spend some money just put it back under their matress.

Posted by: Terry on January 16, 2009 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

Did he thank the "swooners" at the Post for being totally in the tank for him???

Posted by: fred t on January 16, 2009 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds like they are setting themselves up to carp about how Obama didn't deliver the entitlement reforms he "promised". It's all the headline scanners will ever see.

Posted by: AK Liberal on January 16, 2009 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK

Just for kicks, here's a back-and-forth between me and Fred Hiatt about Social Security and Medicare from a WaPo online chat back on August 25, 2008:

Me: Why does The Washington Post's editorial board have such a jones for "fixing" Social Security? If it's broke, it ain't very: the Congressional Budget Office says the trust fund's not expected to run out for another 40-plus years, which means its demise hasn't gotten any closer during the past 15 years. The trust fund has a better than 20 percent chance of outlasting the youngest Boomer's 100th birthday. The 75-year actuarial imbalance amounts to 0.38 percent of GDP, or 1.06 percent of taxable payroll. That's really not very big. And you mention none of this in this morning's "Social Security on Ice" editorial.

Meanwhile, we've got much bigger problems to deal with in the same time horizon. Climate change is much more in need of being addressed quickly, and the long-term consequences are considerably more severe. We're paying a much bigger share of our GDP on health care costs than the European and East Asian democracies are, and that's going to bust the Medicare trust fund. But for some reason, you guys harp on "fixing" Social Security to a much greater degree than these other problems. What's the deal?

Fred Hiatt: We agree that health care costs, and the looming Medicare deficit, are a bigger problem than the Social Security deficit--and will be harder to fix. When you put them both together, the US is on an unsustainable path that will put huge burdens on younger workers to take care of more and more retirees. What we've said is, if SS is easier to fix, let's at least do that, because the longer you wait, the harder it gets--and if we can't do that, it doesn't bode well for fixing the more complicated ones.

Me: Isn't that a universally applicable argument in favor of dealing with more trivial problems before dealing with more substantive problems? Why should the next president burn a good deal of his political capital on a fight regarding Social Security that doesn't need to be fought for at least five years, when time's a-wastin' on climate change and health care costs?

Fred Hiatt: Look, if Congress would enact a serious cap and trade or carbon tax bill, that would make us happy too--as we've said probably more times than our readers care to recall. We don't argue to do the trivial first. What we do say is, to NOT do Social Security because Medicare is more serious is also a silly argument. SS needs fixing, the longer you wait the harder it gets, so why wait? (Plus, in a Washington that worked better, the outlines of a SS compromise would be pretty obvious to most.)

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on January 16, 2009 at 4:08 PM | PERMALINK

Of course it's "not troubling," Steve, because he offered no specifics. Helllooooo?

So, let's see what he has to say two months from now.

And, it's not yet clear what effect a national healthcare plan for those under 65 will have on Medicare costs.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on January 16, 2009 at 4:19 PM | PERMALINK

Ya know, that lede was so mystifying that I actually read the article.

It is going to be a shock to have a President who actually knows what he is talking about.

Posted by: janinsanfran on January 16, 2009 at 4:58 PM | PERMALINK

This is the second reference to "fixing" "entitlements" that Obama has made in recent days.What does that say? Certainly not that he misspoke. That and that George W. Bush is a nice guy. Change we can believe in?

Posted by: impartial on January 16, 2009 at 6:12 PM | PERMALINK

About time. Everybody with half a brain had this figured out a long time ago. SS is doing FINE. Medicare is in trouble, and not because it's a Fed program, but because US health care SUCKS. In fact US health care will take down our country long before Medicare does because Medicare is one of the BEST RUN health care programs that we have.

So the next big step is to make US health care reform a big part of the economic bailout, and to make everybody understand that the US health care MESS is one of the reasons our economy has FAILED.

Repubs will fight this tooth and nail. They realized that if we reform health care, then the jig is up, and everybody will see just how the Repubs are nothing more than a scam to rip off the Middle class.

Posted by: Glen on January 16, 2009 at 7:47 PM | PERMALINK

I've said it before, I'll say it again: if the staff of today's Washington Post had been around in 1972-74, Nixon would be President In Perpetuity. What a bunch of buffoons. Nah, Bugs Bunny had it right: "what a buncha maroons!"

Posted by: TCinLA on January 16, 2009 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

"About time..." To reduce "entitlements" the elderly live on? Obama is not for universal or single payer health care. All you are going to see there is the children's health bill. Otherwise those neediest are going to be asked to bite the bullet for the sake of those better off. Change we can believe in????

Posted by: impartial on January 16, 2009 at 8:14 PM | PERMALINK

Will no one feed the troll?

Posted by: Doug on January 16, 2009 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

What ever happened to revising the entitlements of the rich? Social Security is not in fact in the red and hasn't been in some time. Medicare doesn't even provide preventative care. The wealthy continue to get outrageous tax breaks, loopholes, and deductions that are preposterous but no one objects to that. God forbid grandma should get a free physical though.

Posted by: impartial on January 16, 2009 at 8:24 PM | PERMALINK

"Will no one feed the troll?'' No. They're too busy feeding themselves and the rich.

Posted by: impartial on January 16, 2009 at 8:26 PM | PERMALINK

yes, the post blew the lead on its obama story and should be criticized for that. but i'm far more critical of obama himself for backtracking on a lot of things he promised during the campaign. two of them are prominently listed in the article. (1) he now says he close guantanamo "by the end of his first term in office." that's ridiculous. up to now, he's left the impression he'd close it a lot more quickly, like four months, six maximum. (2) he's backed off the ease-of-unionization bill, saying "there may be other ways to achieve the same goal without angering business." aw, shucks, we don't want to anger business, do we, folks? funny, i didn't hear him talking like that when he was in the senate or during the campaign. added to his backing off on iraq (ending the war in 2009 and removing all combat troops in 16 months have given way to a bush-like promise of listening to his commanders), and indicating he won't prosecute the bushies worst war crimes: torture, rendition, warrantless wiretapping, outright stealing of billions in iraq, and on and on and on, lead me to conclude he's just another pol. better than a republican, yes. but not one to be trusted. i know, he hasn't even taken office yet. but keep an eye on him. as an even bigger liar in the white house, ronald reagan, once said: trust but verify.

Posted by: samg on January 16, 2009 at 8:44 PM | PERMALINK

A) Social Security is more financially sound today than it has been throughout most of its 72-year history.

B) The only problem with Medicare is that it is purchasing medical care from the private-sector healthcare industry.

Posted by: Joe Friday on January 17, 2009 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

steve, this is rather a tangent to the topic, but i think it's incumbent upon us progressive pundits to wrest away the concepts of medicare and social security from those who would incorrectly label them "entitlements."

they are not entitlements. they may be government programs, and a case can be made that they are closer to ponzi schemes than is good for the survival of said programs, but they are not "entitlements."

they are "investments." i've been investing in both social security and medicare since i entered the work force some 30 odd years ago, and i expect a return on my investment soon. i only hope that i get it.

however, letting people label them as "entitlements" also lets people imply that they are not things i and millions of americans have earned, and thusly are bound to be taken away on a moral basis, quite incorrectly, thus profiting the elite class.

and "entitlement," by webster's definition, is a "birth right." social security and medicare aren't doled out to people just for being born. they have to work and contribute, which doesn't sound to me like an entitlement.

in fact, the only "birth right" that has been dealt w/by the goverment as of late is the inheritance tax; "inheritance" by definition is a "birth right." and there also, the hardly-ever-right has successfully changed the nominclature to allow for changes that they profit from, ie, the inheritance tax, renamed the "death tax," has been drastically slashed, leaving tons of money for the folks that didn't have to do anything except outlive their parents, and depriving the goverment of a revenue stream.

i know that "entitlement" is now the cw term, and it's hard to talk about soc.sec. and medicare w/o using such nomenclature, but i beseech you to at least mention these ideas when using such labels.

we've got to close that overton window, and get people back into realizing that they have earned their soc.sec. and medicare, and so they'll fight harder to keep people (read: the elites) from taking it away from them.

next week: we tax incomes, not people...

Posted by: skippy on January 17, 2009 at 2:55 AM | PERMALINK

Good post skippy.

It's time to point out to people that have had their 401K raped that their MONEY that they have INVESTED in SS is still there and SS is still financially sound and will be there for them when they need it.

And it's time to point out that universal single payer health care is absolutely required to fix our economy. They need to reform American health care in order to maximize their INVESTMENT in Medicare. Maximizing the insurance pool (we are all in it) and minimizing the administrative costs (one system for records/billing) is a sound business way to do this. It will actually provide you with MORE CHOICE for doctors. It will also still allow anyone the option to pay out of their own pocket and see whoever they want.

It's unbelievable that there is even a snowball's chance in hell that Wall St will start demanding that our government ignore it's obligations in SS and Medicare so that they can get more trillions of dollars dumped into that black hole they have created.

Posted by: Glen on January 17, 2009 at 7:16 PM | PERMALINK



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