Entitlements

ENTITLEMENTS…. Barack Obama stopped by the Washington Post‘s offices yesterday and covered a lot of ground with reporters and editors. There was one subject of particular interest — the Post‘s front-page headline read: “Obama Pledges Entitlement Reform.”

There was, I think it’s fair to say, a collective “uh oh” among progressives everywhere. Once we start hearing about “entitlement reform,” it generally means some kind of effort to weaken Social Security.

As it turns out, Obama’s comments on the subject weren’t troubling at all.

Five days before taking office, Obama was careful not to outline specific fixes for Social Security and Medicare, refusing to endorse either a new blue-ribbon commission or the concept of submitting an overhaul plan to Congress that would be subject only to an up-or-down vote, similar to the one used to reach agreement on the closure of military bases.

But the president-elect exuded confidence that his economic team will succeed where others have not.

“Social Security, we can solve,” he said, waving his left hand. “The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable…. We can’t solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system.”

Obama’s exactly right. Though it probably didn’t please the Post‘s editors — Fred Hiatt, I’m looking in your direction — Obama was right to dismiss concerns over Social Security with a wave of his hand. There is, to borrow a phrase from 2005, no crisis.

What’s more, Obama’s take on Medicare was even more encouraging. Not only is it “the big problem,” but the only sensible way of addressing it is in the context of systemic reform. The problem is not with the program, but with the way we pay for healthcare. As Jonathan Cohn noted, “Fix health care and you can fix Medicare — which, by the way, is what Obama has promised all along.”

What’s odd, though, is the way the Post characterized all of this. As Matt Yglesias noted, the lede of the front-page piece read, “President-elect Barack Obama pledged yesterday to shape a new Social Security and Medicare ‘bargain’ with the American people, saying that the nation’s long-term economic recovery cannot be attained unless the government finally gets control over its most costly entitlement programs.”

The substance of that is misleading, but more importantly, that’s not what Obama said — at least, that’s not what the Post reported him as saying.