President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to make entitlement program reform "a central part" of his program to get federal spending under control.
We'll believe it when we see it. Virtually every president during the past generation has promised to take on entitlement spending. But it never seems to happen.
Obama cited Social Security and Medicare as two key entitlements that need to be reformed. So have others preparing to take up residence in the White House in past years. Some don't even try: President Bush, for example, made the same promises now being heard from Obama. He went on to push for and get a gigantic, astronomically expensive expansion of Medicare.
Part of the reason why entitlement reform never gets beyond the promises stage is that presidents can't tackle the issue on their own. They have to convince members of Congress to join them in laying hands on "the third rail of politics" - Social Security - and in tackling other entitlements that are popular with millions of voters.
Americans have known for decades that entitlement spending could not be sustained. Within a few decades, Social Security is expected to be flat broke. Already, many states have trouble meeting their matching payments for Medicaid. At some point, the very existence of such programs will be in jeopardy if their spending is not brought under control.
That brings up the issue of whether Washington can sustain current levels of spending on anything. The federal budget deficit for next year is expected to be about $1.2 trillion.
We respect Obama for his pledge to take on entitlements. But, again, we have respected other presidents-elect for making similar promises - then been disappointed with their lack of political courage.
Obama will go into office with a mountain of "political capital." He should use some of it to keep his promise on entitlement spending.