04/15/2011 06:52 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2011

Obama Reframes the Fiscal Fight

Entering the lists at last, President Obama delivered a stout defense of progressive values yesterday and checked the rightward drift of the deficit debate. For all its strengths, though, his speech also left open the question of whether he and his party are ready to grapple effectively with surging health and entitlement costs.

Obama started with a history lesson. As the Tea Party harks back to 19th century conceptions of limited government, he reminded Americans that the nation's progress since then has been built upon a pragmatic synthesis of free enterprise and progressive governance. The extent of public activism required to create optimal conditions for shared prosperity is always a legitimate matter of debate, but the basic need for it shouldn't be.

By insisting that deficit reduction leave room for strategic public investments in scientific research, modern infrastructure and education, Obama underscored a vital distinction that was being lost in the scramble to cut government spending: Reducing budget deficits is integral to reviving America's economic dynamism. For most Americans, the priority is to get our economy moving again, not shrink government.

Obama also pushed back hard against Rep. Paul Ryan's delusional budget, which asserts that the America's path back to fiscal responsibility entails 100 percent spending cuts and 0 percent tax increases. In endorsing (finally!) his own fiscal commission's plan, the president has set up a clear choice between the GOP's fanatical devotion to shielding the rich from higher taxes and a bipartisan approach that exempts no one from sacrifice.

The president's confident rejection of GOP tax dogma left House GOP Whip Eric Cantor sputtering. He was reduced to repeating the ridiculous Republican mantra that asking the wealthy to pay higher taxes is tantamount to killing America's small businesses. Please Eric, bring it on: this is a debate progressives can win.

But Obama can't just win debates. He needs to preside over passage of a comprehensive deficit-reduction package that, in a divided government, can only be achieved on a bipartisan basis. If he wants moderate Republicans to play on raising revenues -- and a few intrepid souls like Sens. Tom Coburn and Saxby Chambliss have begun to do -- he is going to have to convince Democrats to play on entitlement reform.

Here his speech fell short. Clearly mindful of President Clinton's success in rallying the pubic behind his plans to protect Medicare and Medicaid during the 1995-96 budget battle, Obama categorically ruled out structural changes in how government finances those programs. That could prove to be a mistake.

It's one thing for Democrats to reject the size of Ryan's proposed cuts in the big public health care programs. But for both substantive and tactical reasons, they shouldn't reject out of hand innovative devises to constrain entitlement costs.

It's 2011, not 1996, and the baby boom retirement is underway, not over the horizon. This demographic surge, combined with health care costs that have been rising for decades faster than the economy has grown, are the real drivers of America's debt crisis. To put a governor on the engine of federal health care spending, Ryan has proposed moving Medicare to a premium support model, and turning Medicaid into a federal block grant.

In his speech, Obama endorsed an alternative: strengthening provisions in his health reform bill to slow the unsustainable rate of health care cost growth. These provisions would encourage health providers to shift from fee-for-service to fixed fees for bundled services or capitated payments, which reward the value rather than volume of care delivered. These and other Obamacare provisions, including the independent commission set up to explore efficiencies in Medicare, are all good ideas. But even if they work, it will take a very long time for them to reach the scale necessary to break the back of medical inflation.

In the meantime, we need to protect public budgets from surging health care costs that threaten to soak up every dollar of revenue raised by 2040. If premium support and block grants are ruled out -- even though some prominent liberals and Democrats have long supported one or the other -- progressives need to come up with an alternative.

The political "grand bargain" Obama must strike couldn't be clearer. It's embedded in the fiscal commission plan: GOP support for raising revenues in return for Democratic support for constraining public health care and retirement costs. As the political action now shifts to the Senate, Obama needs to challenge his own party too.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.