How Obama Missed His Moment on Entitlements

"...the budget that [Rep. Paul Ryan] came forward with is just like Paul Ryan. It is a sensible, straightforward, honest, serious budget and it cut the budget deficit just like we did, by $4 trillion. ... The president came out with his own plan and the president, as you remember, came out with a budget, and I don't think anybody took that budget very seriously."

-- Erskine Bowles, Democratic co-chairman of President Obama's debt and deficit commission, in a Sept. 8, 2011 speech at the University of North Carolina.

President Obama and Vice President Biden have been escalating their attacks in the days since soon-to-be Republican nominee Mitt Romney tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan to be his wingman. But not in the way everyone expected.

Suggesting Republicans want to enslave people and reverting to a 29-year-old charge that Romney was unkind to his dog isn't where the Democratic debate was supposed to be today. The political press said this would be a new era of substantive attacks on Republican policy, not overheated rhetoric and personal attacks.

But here we are, with the nasty attacks still flying after more than four months of the ugliest campaign ever run by an incumbent president.

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Biden crossed a new rhetorical line on Tuesday campaigning in Virginia, telling an audience that included hundreds of black voters that Republicans are "going to put y'all back in chains." The Obama campaign subsequently backed Biden's comments, saying that the metaphorical chains to which Biden was referring were about Wall Street control of the nation's economy.

Maybe so, but yelling about human bondage in the commonwealth that was once the seat of the capital of the Confederacy is not the mark of a campaign that's under control.
Out in Iowa, Obama was joking about a favorite story among Democrats about Romney putting his Irish setter in a car carrier on the roof of his station wagon for a 1983 trip to Canada. Obama, who backed off that line of attack when Republicans started gleefully pointing out that he had, as a boy in Indonesia, dined on dog, has apparently decided that the swipe at Romney is worth the risk.

To top it off, the political action committee backed by the president is now putting money behind ads that blame Romney for the death of a Kansas City woman from cancer. Neither the president nor his campaign has yet to denounce or even disparage the attack judged by fair-minded observers to be dishonest and unfair. Obama, who long-decried such ads and called on rivals to disown them when aimed at him, has stood silent for more than a week.

Obama and Biden are swinging so hard on personal attacks at the exact moment that the political press had been predicting that the campaign was about to take a turn toward serious policy debate. The selection of Ryan, the Republican budget maven and a well-respected figure across the political bandwidth in Washington, was supposed to bring out something better in an Obama campaign that even media defenders allow has been heaven on personal attacks and light on substance.

The mystery to political reporters is why the Obama Democrats haven't embraced the "choice" election concept Obama says he favors. Why is the Obama campaign talking about "chains" and trying to force a referendum on Romney's character? Romney accepted the concept of a contest between sharply contrasting visions the president said he wanted, so why the demagoguery and personal attacks?

To find the answer, you have to go back to Dec. 3, 2010 when the plan put forward by the chairmen of the president's bipartisan debt commission came three votes short of passage.

The men tapped to lead the commission by the president -- a moderate Republican, former Sen. Alan Simpson, and a moderate Democrat, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton -- needed 14 of 18 votes of the bipartisan group of lawmakers, CEOs, policy wonks and one labor leader on the panel to guarantee an up-or-down vote in both houses of Congress.

The commission was pretty clearly designed to fail, much like the debt-ceiling commission would do in 2011, but as the clock wound down on the Simpson-Bowles project, it became clear that it might just work. Rather than serving the typical role of a blue-ribbon commission in Washington, this one was threatening to do more than simply provide a deflection for politicians unwilling to address a subject.

In the end, the chairmen's proposal came up just three votes short after surprising support from fiscal hawks and liberals from the Senate delegation alike. The plan, which involved whacking tax deductions and making substantial, long-term changes to entitlement programs, found surprising support.

The plan didn't get the votes, though. It came up short because of some liberal House Democrats who refused to make any changes to Social Security and, more notably, for the refusal of the chairman of the House Budget Committee, one Paul Ryan.

Ryan, citing concerns over Medicare and the tax code, walked away from a deal that even hawkish senators like Tom Coburn had deemed acceptable. In doing so, Ryan handed Obama what could have been the greatest gift of his presidency.

With House Republicans standing in flat-footed refusal of a plan with bipartisan support to tame the skyrocketing national debt, the way was clear for Obama to seize the high-ground on the subject.

Obama, after all, had already grabbed the third rail of entitlements by financing part of his 2010 health law through cuts to Medicare. Never again could Democrats claim the subsidized insurance program for senior citizens was inviolable. Obama had also long talked about the need to get serious about entitlements. Here, in Ryan's refusal, was Obama's chance to put Republicans on defense on the subject. Republicans were terrified that Obama would pick up the Simpson-Bowles plan and shove it down their throats. It was a time of high anxiety for the GOP.

But Obama balked. The president, who had taken so much heat for overfilling his plate in his first two years, opted to do nothing. He allowed the plan to simply drift off into the archives rather than do the politically advantageous thing and use Simpson-Bowles as a tool to strike a pose as a budget hawk.

We'll never know whether it was anxiety about seeking new changes even as anger simmered over his previous big ideas - his health law and 2009 stimulus package - or whether it was pressure from House Democrats who complained that seeking a bipartisan solution on entitlements would deny them their best line of attack on the new Republican majority. Maybe the president was simply too ideologically rigid. Whatever the cause, Obama froze.

Had the president embraced the plan, it still likely wouldn't have passed but it would have provided a new, substantive line of attack. Obama could have, as Clinton did with changes to welfare, stolen the middle ground. Obama instead reverted back to his calls for more stimulus spending, miniature versions of his 2009 program.

Obama let Ryan off the hook. Ryan might have seemed intransigent, but when Obama punted and then offered a budget that ignored the issues, Ryan's status as a man of big ideas and reason was preserved.

It's baffling that the president, having already meddled with Medicare and with voters thinking him too liberal, wouldn't take the leap.

Now, Obama is reaping the unhappy harvest as Ryan crisscrosses the country prosecuting the president's inaction on debt and deficits. Had Obama done the same to Ryan in the winter of 2010-2011, not only would Ryan not be Romney's running mate, but Obama could be making a claim on fiscal centrism rather than just launching wave after wave of attacks on his Republican challenger.

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at