Fiscal deal leaves central question of Obama presidency unresolved. . . . What should the safety net of the 21st century look like, and who should pay for it?Why, I want to know, does anybody think that actions taken this year, at a time of economic malaise and big budget deficits, will determine what happens over the whole 21st century?
There is a fantasy in politics, or at least in political reporting, that big battles are fought, one side wins, and then it's over. But political conflict never ends. Political conflict is, I would say, one of the constants of human society. Conflict over the shape of our welfare programs will continue next year and the next and the next.
There are things that, once done, are hard to undo, viz., hardly anyone in America is now calling for the abolition of Social Security or Medicare. So those are progressive victories with a certain permanence. But none of the disputes of the past decade have approached that level of basic structural importance. All of the recent debates have been about how and how much. We are going to continue, for the foreseeable future, to subsidize the living costs and health care of elderly Americans. The argument about how we do this and how generously, and how to pay for it, were never going to be settled this year and will not end in our lifetimes.