Most Americans breathed a sigh of relief last month when Congress finally averted another shutdown of the U.S. government. But that limited, short-term victory for bipartisan compromise can't erase the defining, long-term challenge of stemming the still-onrushing tide of federal red ink.
Since 2011, our elected leaders in Washington - including President Barack Obama - have been lurching from one budget crisis to another. As a result, the underlying danger of rising entitlement spending has still not been effectively addressed.
Certainly, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which is a new de facto entitlement, is getting a lot of attention. And it's a train wreck no longer waiting to happen.
Yet the repeated postponements of hard-but-necessary changes to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security have been going on for years.
The trench political warfare between the two parties has moved the debate small distances one way or another, but there has been no breakthrough to dealing with the real problems.
Democrats refuse to address reforms to reduce the costs of so-called "entitlements" unless Republicans agree to another round of tax increases on high incomes following ones agreed to last January, when Republicans gave up their effort to renew the Bush-era tax rates. Republicans balk at this new demand.
The most authoritative source on the entitlement problem is the Congressional Budget Office. In its latest long-range forecast, it says that unless Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are reformed to reduce their costs, spending for these programs will grow faster than the economy or federal revenues, leading to massive borrowing, much higher interest costs and adverse economic effects.
The rising interest payments will squeeze out government spending for defense, foreign affairs, domestic infrastructure, education, housing, transportation, agriculture, science and natural resources. And total federal spending will still grow faster than the economy, beginning roughly after the next presidential election in 2016.
Without substantive changes, 25 years from now the government will be running annual deficits of roughly $1 trillion a year, and rising.
President Obama's solution to the fiscal problem has been to demand higher taxes on the wealthy. That could presumably raise another $100 billion a year - though as past tax hikes have shown, they don't always yield their anticipated returns.
The major tasks facing Congress are to find ways to curb the growth of entitlement spending and to reform taxes to encourage greater economic growth. Based on its recent performance, it's too much to expect Congress to address those issues in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, as long as the president stands in the way of real entitlement changes, instead demanding largely symbolic tax increases on the wealthy, nothing will happen in the way of a solution.
Then again, the president still has the option of showing real leadership on a difficult issue.
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a visit to communist China, setting in motion a new relationship between the United States and a nation that had been a declared enemy since 1949. Only Mr. Nixon, with his staunch anti-communist reputation, could have pulled off this transformation.
As a strong advocate of the social welfare safety net, President Obama is similarly situated to lead the nation to accepting gradual, cost reducing changes in their terms.
As Mr. Obama enters his final three years in the White House, he should take the opportunity to save the nation from more destructive brinkmanship and gridlock.
He could - and should - forge a positive presidential legacy by helping our nation make the overdue, difficult decisions needed to transform, and thus save, the endangered entitlement systems.
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