Why shouldn't programs for the elderly be overhauled to reflect longer life expectancy and growing wealth among retirees?
Shouldn't we have a debate on the size and role of government, eliminating low-value programs and raising taxes to cover the rest?
The "spin" given by the White House — and accepted by much of the media — is that the president is doing precisely this by putting coveted "entitlement" spending on the bargaining table.
It's phony. Compared with the size of the problem, Obama's proposals are tiny.
The much-discussed shift in the inflation adjustment for Social Security benefits to the "chained" consumer price index would save $130 billion over a decade; that's about 1 percent of projected Social Security spending of $11.23 trillion over the same period.
A proposal to raise Medicare premiums for affluent retirees is more meaningful but would affect only couples with incomes exceeding $170,000, says Obama aide Gene Sperling.
Similarly, the administration also opposes "wasting taxpayer dollars on programs that are outdated, ineffective or duplicative."
But it proposed only 215 "cuts, consolidations and savings proposals," reducing spending by an estimated $25 billion in 2014. That's about seven-tenths of 1 percent of federal spending. No major program is on chopping block.
The work of politics is persuasion. It is orchestrating desirable, though unpopular, changes. (Popular changes don't require much work.)
Obama has the intellectual and rhetorical skills to conduct a debate on government's size and role. But it would be a hard and hazardous political task, because it would challenge the assumptions and interests of wide swaths of the public.
There is no guarantee that he would succeed in altering attitudes. Already, his small proposed cuts in Social Security benefits have outraged much of the liberal base.
So Obama has taken a pass. He has chosen the lazy way out.
He's evading basic choices while claiming he's bold and brave.
A more charitable interpretation is that he's focusing his political talents on more promising causes (gun control, immigration).
Either way, government is slowly growing larger while — in many basic functions — it's being strangled.
This paradox, it seems, will be Obama's questionable legacy.