During a Friday news conference, a reporter asked President Obama whether he had any responsibility for the onset of the automatic spending cuts that he has warned will be devastating for the nation. "The problem that we have is a long-term problem in terms of our health care costs and programs like Medicare," Obama said in his response. "And what I've said very specifically, very detailed is that I'm prepared to take on the problem where it exists -- on entitlements -- and do some things that my own party really doesn't like -- if it's part of a broader package of sensible deficit reduction."
Obama is correct that entitlements in general and health care programs in particular are the biggest source of the nation's long-term fiscal problems. But it's a complete falsehood that he's offered detailed and specific plans to do something about it.
At various times during his presidency, Obama has vowed to tackle the nation's entitlement programs. It's true that his health care law did cut projected Medicare spending by about $700 billion over a decade. But those projected savings, along with tax increases, were used to offset $1.7 trillion in new health care spending under Obamacare rather than go toward debt reduction. In other words, they don't fix any of the program's structural fiscal problems.
Since Republicans took over Congress in 2011, Obama has consistently said he'd be willing to address entitlements if Republicans agreed to raise taxes -- but he's either spoken vaguely about this willingness or offered proposals that represent minor tweaks to the programs rather than fundamental changes that would put them on a sustainable financial trajectory. For instance, during the "fiscal cliff" debate, Obama floated the idea of changing the measure of inflation used to calculate Social Security benefits -- a move that the Congressional Budget Office estimated would save $127 billion over a decade.
And during his State of the Union address, Obama called for "ask[ing] more from the wealthiest seniors." But Medicare is already heavily means-tested. Premiums for Medicare Part B (which covers services such as lab tests, surgeries and doctor visits) range from $99.90 to $319.60 per month, depending on income, and prescription drug coverage costs wealthier beneficiaries $66.40 more per month than it does for others. Whatever the merits of such a policy, there isn't much more money to be gained from further means testing. Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that health care programs and Social Security will translate into combined spending of $25 trillion over the next decade.
If Obama has a detailed solution that rises to that scale over the long term, he hasn't shared it with anyone we know of. And even as Obama exaggerated his fiscal credentials on Friday, Washington learned that his official budget, already a month late (due by law on Feb. 4), won't be released until March 25. If Obama has a few minutes between campaign speeches, perhaps he could present the public with something that resembles a real and realistic plan for addressing the nation's problems.