Obama’s staggering challenges

The words were upbeat and inspiring and the follow up budgetary details so startling one can only wonder how in the world most of it can be accomplished with a treasury that is as much underwater as half the stocks in everyone’s 401(k) or the value of their houses as compared to their mortgages.

The planned overhaul of the health system alone could cost at much as $1 trillion if not more and much of that is supposed to be paid for by boosting taxes on the wealthy, which seldom works. Then there is the fact that the key points of the president’s save America plan — health care, education, and energy — have resisted change for decades.

The missing element in the proposed overhaul is what is to be done about the runaway entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare. How does one reform anything without dealing with the impending crisis in these giants? Yet there wasn’t a whisper about them in the president’s address.

While reforming health care must necessarily encompass the latter, the number of Americans needed to support each Social Security recipient is beginning to grow rapidly now as the stream of baby boomer retirement reaches flood proportion. Add soaring unemployment to the equation and the toxic impact on the budget is enormous.

Why would the president decide, apparently at the last minute, to drop Social Security from his list for economic rejuvenation? The answer seems to be that Democratic leaders in the Congress advised him that it would be unwise. Translated that simply means that no one on Capitol Hill has the guts even to try to reduce the growth of the programs and to force them to do so would expend much of his political capital. That alone should signal just how difficult it is going to be for the White House’s initiatives.

It seems clear Obama is betting on the intensity of the recession to convince lawmakers on both sides that it is time to deal seriously with what they have been avoiding all these years. But that is far from a sure thing unless the bully pulpit the president occupies can bring Americans crashing down on the heads of quarreling legislators. One probably shouldn’t bet against that happening with this man who has approval ratings in the high 60s.

But the enormity of the difficulties is staggering. Consider what happened to then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s attempt at overhauling the health care system and how often exorbitant gas prices caused by dependence on foreign oil have driven lawmakers to pledge an immediate solution. Clinton’s health care proposals dissolved in the face of vicious industry lobbying and rancorous partisan debate. The energy promises just sort of ran out of gas when the prices came down, taking the steam out of calls for renewable elements. The one exception has been the support for ethanol that for years essentially benefited one politically connected company, Archer Daniels Midland, and some farm state lawmakers.

Having now passed the Roosevelt fireside chat test and turned, for a few seconds anyway, the daily doom and gloom forecast into rosy predictions of a national shining-through, Obama obviously realizes the need to move swiftly while his public support is so high. He is asking that all these so far intractable issues be solved within record time, maybe even at a one-a-month pace. At the same time, he is on the hook for a new pledge to reduce the national debt by half during his first term, a trick that would put him way ahead of any escape artist in history.

Obama’s promise that anyone earning under $250,000 annually would be spared an increase in taxes prompted one wag to note that most of the lawmakers jumped up in applause for obvious reasons. Even the majority of those august men and women, including the cabinet members, don’t earn that much. In fact the pool of individual wealth that Obama is planning on tapping to pay for his plans has shrunk dramatically.

Oh, well. To paraphrase humorist Will Rogers, we all can ride to the poor house in our limousines.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)