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Tony Fratto: Obama's Social-Security Stumble

"What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further. We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's."

That was then-President-elect Obama in January 2009 speaking to the Washington Post, in the heady moment of hopefulness when many of us believed a new president could lead a legislative effort to address the ticking time bomb of our retirement security system.

In that interview the President went on to say that there will be “very difficult choices and issues of sacrifice and responsibility and duty,” and that he intends to “spend political capital on this.”

So, where has the President been since then?

Well…crickets…

Until this weekend, that is, when President Obama took the opportunity in his Weekly Radio Address — coordinated with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — to attack an obscure proposal by a House Republican congressman that almost no one was talking about.

So eighteen months after promising to work in a serious, bipartisan way to address a looming fiscal threat, the President’s first foray on the issue was a peripheral, partisan attack intended to frighten older Americans on the eve of election season.

Where was the discussion of those very difficult choices? Where was the call for sacrifice, responsibility and duty? Where was the President setting straight the head-in-the-sand Social Security Deniers who — despite ample evidence — see no crisis on the horizon?

Social Security is a simple math problem. We know exactly who will be claiming benefits and when. We know, with reasonable confidence, based on expected wages and cost of living adjustments, the amount of benefits that will be paid out over time. And we know with relative certainty the size of the shortfall and when the shortfall will hit.

These are the options for Social Security: a structural overhaul of the program — perhaps moving from defined benefits to defined contributions; or expensive and painful adjustments in revenues and benefits. Or both. That’s it.

A serious president, rather than taking cynical, partisan whacks at a mere proposal by a minority party congressman, would have used his megaphone to educate Americans — or, better, would have actually presented his ideas for solving this simple math problem and start spending some of that political capital.

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Tony Fratto, a CNBC contributor, is Managing Director of Hamilton Place Strategies – a strategic economic policy and communications firm based in Washington, DC. He is a former White House Deputy Press Secretary for the George W. Bush Administration and Assistant Secretary of the Treasury. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TonyFratto.