Every new President talks about the dawn of a new era, about the need to make government work, about friends and foes abroad, about the myriad challenges that face his fellow citizens, about … well, you get the picture. Barack Obama was no exception. His inaugural address was well-crafted and delivered in his impeccable style, but it was, dare I say it, rather pedestrian. He hit all the right notes and set all of the appropriate themes, but as in all things, we’ll all have to wait until his actions begin to flesh out his words.
He correctly noted that we (and his administration) have substantial challenges:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.
He's right when he notes “our collective failure to make hard choices.” But he avoids stating an underlying truth—politicians and political parties avoid “hard choices” the same way they would avoid Bird Flu. Proximity can kill ya.
The problem, I suppose, is that making “hard choices” implies that you’re going to make more than a few people unhappy.
For example, the “hard choices” that are required to mitigate the problems associated with social security are relatively easy to identify. The problem is that no coalition of politicians has had the courage to make them. Everyone clucks about the Bernie Madoff scandal and asks how a Ponzi scheme like his could have gone undetected. Folks … our social security system is a government-sanctioned Ponzi scheme that over the next 30 years just might bankrupt our already beleaguered treasury. Ditto Medicare. And to a lesser degree, a panoply of entitlements that range from farm subsidies, to bank bailouts, to a broad range of ineffective “poverty programs.”
But hard choices on each will gore someone’s ox and a constituency of “someones” will scream bloody murder. The political class will rapidly decide that hard choices can be delayed.
Will Barack Obama herald in an era of “hard choices?” It isn’t likely, but I must say that he has an excellent opportunity to do so. The media will cut him more slack that any other President in my lifetime. He is, after all, their guy. The majorities he has in Congress will give him enormous clout. His personal charisma and the good will of the people will provide support.
If he does try, I would suggest amending his phrasing just slightly. The new President must help the country make not only hard choices, but the right choices—choices that will not bankrupt our children and grandchildren, choices that will encourage personal responsibility and initiative, choices that are targeted on real problems, not imagined crises, choices that couple humility with the hard-nosed realization that we simply can’t continue to kick the can down the road.