When it comes to how to make changes to slow the rising costs of some of the nation's most cherished entitlement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, it's a no-win situation for presidents and their top aides to give too many details too early on their proposals.
Start suggesting you want to raise the retirement age or reduce benefits and you don't have to wait long for the backlash. That's why administration officials can sound like Dana Carvey impersonating President George H. W. Bush: "Ain't gonna go there. Wouldn't be prudent."
Take Jacob Lew, President Obama's budget director who spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition. Lew just wasn't going there.
Steve asked Lew why the president's budget was so mute on how to rein in entitlement spending especially when the president's own fiscal responsibility commission urged action.
Lew, a veteran of Washington budget wars going all the way back to President Ronald Reagan's first term, knows too much to fall into that trap.
Part of his discussion with Steve:
LEW: History shows us that when presidents put proposals out that have been shot down, it slowed the process down, it didn't speed it up.
I think if you look at the president's statement in the budget it is a clear expression of interest in working towards a bipartisan solution with principles laid down that reflect how we're going to evaluate options.
STEVE: If I might when you talk about principles, your budget documents include some which the president himself has said, a couple of them off the top of my head, no reduction in current benefits and you're not going to "slash" benefits for future recipients. What does that leave?
LEW: Well. I'm going to leave those words to stand. I think that they actually are reflective of the way we view Social Security. There's a compact there. And we shouldn't be making changes that reduce benefits people are depending on today. And we shouldn't be slashing future benefits.
STEVE: Can you define slash for me?
LEW: No (crosstalk)
STEVE: Does that mean no reduction at all? Does that mean a gentle reduction? What does it mean?
LEW: I think that the words actually speak for themselves. You know this is the beginning of a process. There's going to be a need to build trust on both sides if we're going to make progress.
You know, i was very deeply involved in the 1983 Social Security agreement. I worked on it for House Speaker O'Neill. While we were fighting bitter political battles over Social Security, we left options on the table.
The taxation of Social Security benefits which was part of the 1983 agreement was something that could have become toxic but didn't.
STEVE: Have you left on ... (crosstalk)
LEW: We have deliberately not said things to make one or another option something that we can't talk about.
Update at 10:15 a.m. ET. Here's the audio of Steve's conversation with Lew: