Will the White House Avoid the ‘Entitlement Spending’ Trap?

As President Obama’s “fiscal responsibility summit” consumes much of Washington’s oxygen today, a critical question is being largely ignored in the mainstream media: Will this administration dispense with the notion of an overall “entitlements” crisis and begin treating Social Security and Medicare like the separate issues they are?

The New York Times raises the issue, in a back-handed fashion, by reporting that congressional Democrats are warning Obama against attempting to shore up Social Security’s long-term fiscal health. Per the Times:

Those who oppose action said Mr. Obama must focus on his bigger priority — health care legislation to expand access to insurance and reduce the costs of care. They argue that success there would help control the unsustainable growth of Medicare and Medicaid, the government’s other major benefit programs, which together pose a far greater fiscal problem.

It’s not clear which Capitol Hill Democrats helped quash the idea of announcing a “Social Security task force” during today’s fiscal summit — but Obama would be well-served to heed their advice.Social Security, which will remain fully solvent for more than 30 years, is a minor problem compared with the unsustainable growth of Medicare , particularly the private Medicare Advantage (MA) plans that have bloated the program’s bottom line without offering tangible improvements in case.

As Joe Conason observes, the Obama team has long emphasized that its budget, and tomorrow’s presidential address to Congress, will focus on health care. The two health-related proposals that are reportedly under consideration for the White House budget — trimming MA payments and taxing employers that don’t provide health coverage — are a good start …

… but if previous congressional proposals on MA are any guide, cutting subsidies for private plans will at best yield $50 billion in savings over 10 years. Ensuring Medicare solvency, while paying for broader health care reform, will require the freeing-up of a good deal more cash. One hopes the White House will start talking loudly about where to find those savings, not what to do with the manageable state of Social Security.