The president revealed his last-ditch plan to reform our healthcare system today. (Funny the plan is revealed before the “bipartisan” meeting about health care being trumpeted for political reasons.) One thing I was hoping to see in the proposal is missing — an increase in the eligibility age for Medicare (and, while we are at it, Social Security). Although I would prefer to see us do away with these entitlement programs, if we have them, why not make them solvent and sensible? When these programs were passed, people lived a lot shorter lives than they do today, and a simple indexing to life expectancy would go a long way toward reducing our national fiscal crisis. Not only would this reduce our government-funded health care expenses, it would encourage 65 year olds to stay in the work force. Take my Dad. He retired to a life of reading history books when he hit that magic number, even though he was still energetic, capable, and earning a good living at the time. Our perverse entitlement programs encouraged him to do this, to accept government handouts even though he doesn’t need them, and mandated that he go onto a government-run insurance program, even though he could easily afford his own health care bills or insurance. This makes absolutely no sense. Any system that takes people like this out of the work force and bestows upon them welfare without regard to need is not just stupid, it is immoral.
Faced with a similar set of existing incentives in the 1990s, President Clinton and a Republican Congress ended welfare as we knew it. No longer would we pay people not to work, but instead we would make government handouts instrumental toward a productive life. President Clinton had the cache and credibility with the opponents of welfare reform to get this obviously beneficial change enacted, just as President Nixon did with foreign policy hawks when he went to China. Since Democrats largely stand in the way of entitlement reform, the same must be true of President Obama. President Bush wasn’t able to reform Social Security in part because his proposal to let people invest their own money for retirement sounded to some like a plan to make Bush’s banker friends rich at the expense of Joe the Plumber. But Obama could do this. If he proposed to raise the eligibility age for Medicare (and the other entitlement programs) gradually but dramatically, perhaps in return for some Republican concessions on insurance reform and subsidies for the poor to buy insurance, there might be a deal. The Republicans might even be able to get some tort reform as part of the deal — again, who better than a Democrat lawyer to stand up to the trial lawyers?
In his best moments, the president has seemed to play against type and stand up for good ideas that are not favored by his core special-interests constituency. There have been, for instance, some nods for school choice and performance pay that have irritated the teachers’ unions. He has also continued our assault on Muslim terrorists. We need more of this from the president. (And, he needs more of it if he hopes to be reelected. Just ask President Clinton.) In short, the best hope for reform is compromise, and compromise in ways in which Mr. Obama has a comparative advantage. Anyone could ram through a one-sided agenda; it takes real leadership to go to China. Book your ticket, Mr. Obama. I hear the Great Wall shouldn’t be missed.