The news on the Social Security and Medicare front last week wasn't quite as good as it may have sounded. The trustees of the two programs announced that the bubbling economy has improved the financial outlook of both. If the projections hold up, Medicare has an additional seven years before it goes bankrupt in 2015. Social Security got a two-year reprieve to 2034.
But the key problem facing both programs remains: They can't endure in their present form, especially given the huge number of baby-boomer retirements looming just over the horizon. Both programs need basic structural reforms, and it will take a determined bipartisan effort to make that happen. The administration and Republicans in Congress were equally quick to caution that the rosier financial outlook shouldn't become an excuse to do nothing.
A window of opportunity for reform remains open, but not for long. Unless Congress and the administration can agree on plans for both programs by early October, it's unlikely anything can be accomplished until after the 2000 presidential elections.
President Clinton could help by laying out his own plans for Social Security and Medicare reform. Those plans should include some form of personal retirement accounts. So far he's been happy to take pot shots at others' proposals, while advancing only vague "principles." His coyness and the rhetorical gap between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill feed the pessimism in Washington that reforms can be done this year.
Has Mr. Clinton decided to limit his legacy to trying to elect Vice President Al Gore as his successor along with a Democratic House?
Or will he seize the opportunity to go down in history as having helped save Social Security and Medicare for the next century? The next couple of months will tell.