Advancing a Free Society

The President’s Senior Moment

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How best to analyze President Obama’s plan for reducing the nation’s debt and corralling federal spending?

(Click here to read the White House’s pre-speech, 10 pages of talking points.)

Let’s think of the challenge ahead as a three-legged stool: serious discussions still to come on revenue, spending and entitlement reform.

Not to mention that other, perhaps more elusive challenge: how to craft an actual compromise when D.C. is hip-deep in “reform” proposals from the left, right and the center – indeed, it’s that plethora of plans and the noticeable absence of a presidential blueprint that likely drove today’s speech.

On revenue, the two parties could not be more different. The President wants to tax upper-earners and attack tax-code loopholes; Rep. Paul Ryan’s plan would offer tax breaks.

On spending, Ryan wants $6 trillion in cuts in 10 years, while the President is chasing $4 trillion over 12 years – all the while, ominously, refusing to back down from he describes as needed “investments” in such areas as infrastructure and clean energy. Let’s call this one what it is: a sneak preview of next year’s campaign stump speech.

As for entitlement reform, Ryan has proposed a block-grant system as a more sensible use of Medicare money. Obama wants nothing to do with that. His approach to Medicare is saving-costs, administrative reforms and the like.

Let’s stick with Medicare, for a moment, because it’s relevant to another three-legged stool: the three constituencies the President was trying to reach in this speech.

And that would be, in no particular order:

  1. diehard Democrats looking for their leader to make a stand, after getting pushed around by the GOP during last week’s near-shutdown of the federal government;
  2. independents wanting to know if the man’s serious about taking on the budget;
  3. seniors, mainly interested in Medicare and their health care coverage.

It’s those seniors who may control the president’s political future. Democratic surveys taken after the 2008 vote show Obama underperforming along the 65-and-older slice of the electorate (Obama also didn’t do as well as expected with gay and lesbian voters). In the midterm election, the senior disconnect grew worse for the White House as elderly voters were: (a) more motivated to turn out than other constituencies; (b) concerned that growing debt would weaken the government safety net; (c) skeptical as to Obamacare’s upside.

Thus the focus in the President’s speech on Medicare – specifically, as Mr. Obama alleged, how the GOP reform plan would punish the elderly by compromising that generation’s health needs. The nation’s commander-in-chief would have you believe he’s also the seniors’ protector-in-chief.

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Obama’s remarks:

. . . let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.

This may sound familiar to political junkies –as in a page out of the 1996 playbook, when the incumbent Democratic president did his best to convince voters that Republicans were out to destroy seniors’ healthcare. Sen. Robert Dole, the GOP hopeful that year, called it “Medi-Scare”.

What it was, in fact, was brutally-effective “wedge” politics. Clinton and his allies turned Medicare into a convenient metaphor for divided government. Look for Mr. Obama to do the same in the coming year. Seniors may not trust him, but the President will do his level best to convince voters they should trust Republican even less.

(photo credit: White House photo by Samantha Appleton)