WaPo's Milbank to Obama: Skip the Falsehoods and Give Us a Plan


In a surprisingly blunt column, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank says President Obama's big reframing speech yesterday was based on a "falsehood wrapped in a fallacy." The falsehood? The President's claim he has a plausible debt plan ready to go. 

Despite his claim that "both parties have laid out their policies on the table," Obama has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government's finances.

"My own deficit plan would strengthen Medicare and Medicaid for the long haul by slowing the growth of health-care costs — not shifting them to seniors and vulnerable families," Obama said. "And my plan would reduce our yearly domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in nearly 60 years."

That's incorrect. As Politifact has pointed out, Obama's claim that he would reduce annual domestic spending to a percentage of gross domestic product not seen in 60 years is true only if you don't count the enormous spending on programs such as Medicare. (Obama presumably means he would cut domestic discretionary spending to a 60-year low, a lesser boast.)

Of more concern is Obama's nonsensical claim that he has a deficit plan that would strengthen Medicare for the long haul. He has called for doubling Medicare spending over the next 10 years, to nearly $1 trillion in 2022. His cuts in the rate of growth amount to just a few percentage points. As The Post's Lori Montgomery has reported, the president's 2013 budget marked "the second year in a row Obama has ignored calls to restructure Social Security and Medicare entitlement programs."

Columns like this tend to get held up as evidence that even liberal-leaning columnists at big media institutions are fed up with Obama. They're percieved as important because of who is writing them as much as the details of what's being said. 

The effect can easily be overstated, but it's not nothing. These columns rarely shape the political political environment on their own, but they do give us a better idea of what it already looks like, suggesting points of tension and frustration. Milbank isn't an administration mouthpiece, but he's not exactly a well-known conservative sympathizer either. This piece indicates that someone who might normally ally with the president on a big-picture policy fight is having trouble buying the president's line.

And that's why in this instance the details matter too. President Obama occasionally pays lip service to the need to cut the debt, but when it comes to the single biggest driver of the long-term debt, Medicare, he's been notably unwilling to put forth credible plans. The administration's defenders like to say that ObamaCare was the president's plan for Medicare. But the law only strengthens Medicare's fiscal position if you ignore its double counting. And as the program's own actuaries have repeatedly indicated, the delivery system and administrative reforms called for by the health law are big bets with long odds, at best. The health provider reimbursement cuts the president has called for don't even cover the cost of fixing glaring glitches in Medicare's payment system, much less make a dent in the nation's long-term obligations.

More generally, the $4 trillion debt-reduction plan the president wants people to remember is built on a trillion dollar war spending gimmick and is packed with tax hikes. 

Yet despite this parade of underwhelming non-plans, the president continues to insist that it's only the other team that's at fault. Yesterday's speech was supposed to be about what he would do in a second term. But it ended up revealing more about what he wouldn't.