On Iran and Entitlements, Obama Kicks the Can Down the Road

Michael Barone

3/8/2012 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone

Kicking the can down the road. That's been the Obama administration's response on issues from Iran's nuclear weapons program to America's entitlement systems.

Start with Iran. In a statement in the Oval Office before his meeting with President Obama on Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu noted that Obama had "reiterated yesterday" the principle that "when it comes to Israel's security, Israel has the right, the sovereign right, to make its own decisions."

That evening, speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Netanyahu said: "Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer.

"As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation."

In response to Netanyahu and in his own speech to AIPAC, Obama declared that the United States would not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon. He explicitly ruled out a policy of "containment."

But there clearly is a difference between the two leaders. Obama has been talking about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Netanyahu has been talking about preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapons capability.

I draw the conclusion that Netanyahu will very soon order an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear weapons facilities. Meanwhile, Obama is kicking the can down the road, announcing Tuesday that the United States will participate in further negotiations with Iran.

It cannot be known with certainty that these negotiations will fail, as earlier negotiations have. Obama is correct in saying that we are in the process of imposing much tougher sanctions that are doing real damage to Iran's economy.

But he doesn't mention that those sanctions were produced by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Congress, over the opposition of the administration. A coalition that was alarmed by Obama's policy of, well, kicking the can down the road.

So the result is likely to be an Israeli attack that would not be as militarily effective as an American attack would be, but that could trigger responses just as negative.

The time when Iran gets a nuclear weapons capability seems close at hand, but the time when America's entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid -- become unaffordable is further in the future.

But we've already passed the red line when the payroll tax no longer produces enough cash to pay for Social Security benefits. And Obamacare, by expanding Medicaid, is exacerbating the problem.

When Obama was running for president, many right-thinking and even some right-leaning folks hailed him as a forger of bipartisan consensus temperamentally inclined to respect and even adopt some of the ideas of the opposition party.

In office, he's been something like the opposite of that.

When the bipartisan commission headed by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson presented their recommendations for entitlement reform in December 2010, Obama ignored it. It seemed to end up in the White House's round file.

When House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan put Medicare reform in his 2011 budget proposal, and all but four Republican House members voted for it, the Obama political operation ginned up attacks on Republicans for killing "Medicare as we know it."

Last week at a Budget Committee hearing, Ryan chided Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for not having proposed any solution to the looming entitlement problem.

Geithner's reply: "You're right when you say we're not coming before you today to say 'we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem.' What we do know is we don't like yours."

In other words, campaign 2012 takes precedence over taking us off the trajectory that is heading us toward the fiscal condition of Greece. A Cabinet secretary able to draw on the policymaking expertise at Treasury and on his administration's own Bowles-Simpson commission is unwilling to do so because his president is following the game plan of David Plouffe and David Axelrod.

The Treasury cannot be bothered even to draft the new alternative minimum tax that Obama keeps demanding Congress pass to make Warren Buffett pay a higher tax rate than his secretary.

The folks who hailed Obama as temperamentally bipartisan have given Ryan and House Republicans little credit for addressing a tough problem and will probably tell us Obama will be bipartisan in a second term. I think it's more likely he'll keep kicking the can down the road.