I had high hopes for President Obama's speech on the economy. But instead of going to Ohio last week with a compelling plan for the future, the President gave Americans a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy.
The falsehood is that he has been serious about cutting government spending. The fallacy is that this election will be some sort of referendum that will break the logjam in Washington.
Fallacy first: "Both parties have laid out their policies on the table for all to see," Mr. Obama said. "What's holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate."
He's right about the stalemate. But he's absolutely wrong that November offers an opportunity to break it. No scenario shows either party with a chance of amassing a solid governing majority of the sort Mr. Obama had when he took office. The way to break the stalemate is through compromise, not conquest.
That leads to the falsehood. Despite his claim that "both parties have laid out their policies on the table," President Obama has made no serious proposal to fix the runaway entitlement programs that threaten to swamp the government's finances.
"My own deficit plan would strengthen Medicare and Medicaid for the long haul by slowing the growth of health-care costs -- not shifting them to seniors and vulnerable families," Mr. Obama said. "And my plan would reduce our yearly domestic spending to its lowest level as a share of the economy in nearly 60 years."
That's incorrect. As the Web site PolitiFact has pointed out, President Obama's claim that he would reduce annual domestic spending to a percentage of gross domestic product not seen in 60 years is true only if you don't count the enormous spending on programs such as Medicare. Mr. Obama presumably means he would cut domestic discretionary spending to a 60-year low, a lesser boast.
Of more concern is President Obama's nonsensical claim that he has a deficit plan that would strengthen Medicare for the long haul. He has called for doubling Medicare spending over the next 10 years, to nearly $1 trillion in 2022. His cuts in the rate of growth amount to just a few percentage points.
Nothing in Mr. Obama's speech came close to a proposal to fix the debt problem. He dealt with that only at the end of the speech -- largely by complaining about Republicans' refusal to consider higher taxes on the wealthy.
President Obama alleged, correctly, that Republicans' refusal to countenance tax increases scuttled the Bowles-Simpson plan and the Senate's Gang of Six plan. He argued, also correctly, that Republicans' refusal to budge on taxes is "the biggest source of gridlock in Washington today." He's also on solid ground in saying Republicans would end Medicare as we know it.
But none of that is going to help Mr. Obama, because he hasn't come up with a viable alternative.
Mr. Obama's speech was a rehash of earlier proposals -- such as sending more Americans to community college and spending more on clean energy. Those plans for additional spending would be more credible if he had a plausible plan to reform entitlement spending, the biggest driver of future debt.
Undoubtedly, President Obama would take heat from his base if he put forth a serious plan along the lines of Bowles-Simpson, whose recommendations he never quite embraced. Doing so also would blunt his political advantage as the defender of Medicare from Republican marauders.
But taking a stand on concrete fixes for the nation's fiscal problems would get Mr. Obama credit for strong leadership -- and he would be able to tell the new economic narrative Americans crave. There's even the remote chance that taking such a gamble would bring Republicans to the table.
Early in 2010, Mr. Obama said that he'd "rather be a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president." Now he is acting in the opposite manner: hoping to limp to a second term without addressing the looming debt crisis -- which, as JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon told Congress last week, has contributed to today's economic malaise.
Even at this late stage, President Obama should take a risk. The election, whatever the result, won't make things any easier.
Dana Milbank is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.