Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- President Obama's 2012 budget is the numerical embodiment of his State of the Union address -- both being systematic distractions from the main, current tasks of governing. His plan includes, according to Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs, "no entitlement reform, no tax reform, no significant spending reform, indeed no meaningful change of direction of any sort."

All the elements of a status quo budget are present. A dependence on rosy economic assumptions to lower deficit projections. The deferral of two-thirds of deficit reductions until after 2016, when the ex-president is safely writing his third autobiography. The symbolic cuts in minor programs, attempting to obscure a national debt that will double on his watch (if he's re-elected), then triple by the end of the decade.

Political courage, it's said, is contagious. But Obama is cured. His political immune system is a wonder of nature. Immune to the urgings of his deficit commission. Immune to electoral repudiation. Immune to the warnings of economists and credit markets.

Given a choice between tackling the national debt and stimulating short-term economic growth, Obama chose neither. Instead, transcending the stale options offered by reality, he proposes federal investments in technology and infrastructure to better compete with China years from now. His approach has ideological implications that are obvious on the deficit-conscious right but also dawning on the left. The competitiveness agenda is primarily a corporate agenda. Its natural constituencies are the builders of high-speed trains, the makers of solar panels and the providers of rural cell phone coverage -- not struggling Americans.

And though few progressives will admit it, the current path of entitlement-spending growth will eventually crowd out discretionary priorities of any sort. Our entitlement system represents a massive transfer of national wealth to the retiring baby-boom generation and to the health care industry, eventually leaving crumbs for the young and poor. As interest payments on the debt expand as a percentage of the budget, liberals (and a few remaining compassionate conservatives) will be left scrambling for shrinking resources to confront hunger, addiction, illiteracy or disease.

Up to this point, Republican approaches have not been much better -- and, in a few cases, significantly worse. Some have pretended that discretionary-spending cuts alone will solve America's fiscal ills and have sought credit for irrelevant, indiscriminate harshness. But now there are signs that the 2012 Republican budget, likely to arrive in April, will tackle the entitlement crisis.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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