After watching the State of the Union address, we’ve finally figured out which position President Obama could play for the Steelers on Super Bowl Sunday. He’d make a great punter.

Decades of overspending and overpromising by the federal government, combined with a plunge in tax revenues, are pushing America to the brink of fiscal crisis. Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and interest on the national debt are gobbling up the gross domestic product. The aging Baby Boomers, meanwhile, are waiting in the wings.

President Obama knows the nature and extent of the crisis. His own debt commission reported in December, “If the U.S. does not put its house in order, the reckoning will be sure and the devastation severe.” And the debt commission offered plenty of intriguing ways to address the problem. Its plans to overhaul the tax code and Social Security were especially bold. Commissioners Paul Ryan and Alice Rivlin, moreover, delivered their own proposal to turn Medicare into a sustainable defined-contribution system. And a separate presidential commission, led by Paul -Volcker, outlined a corporate tax reform that would lower rates while closing loopholes.

Obama could have adopted any of these policies as his own. He could have used the State of the Union to challenge Republicans to work with him on bringing the government’s finances into balance while encouraging economic growth. He could have seized the deficit-hawk middle ground and possibly split the GOP in the process. Instead, he punted. He left it up to Republicans to take the ball and run.

Yes, the State of the Union did include a few airy nostrums about reforming Social Security, Medicare, and the corporate tax code. But these shout-outs arrived detail-free and late in the speech, lost amidst pabulum about alternative energy and high-speed rail. The president spoke as though it were 1995 and the economy were strong and growing stronger. But the greatest challenge to America doesn’t come from South Korean high-speed Internet. It comes from a ballooning welfare state that threatens our solvency—to say nothing of burdening our dynamic and entrepreneurial economy.

The day after the president’s speech, for example, the Congressional Budget Office projected that the fiscal year 2011 deficit will be $1.5 trillion. The deficit hasn’t been less than $1 trillion since 2008. This accumulation of debt is simply unsustainable. The interest payments alone will crowd out spending on defense and other public goods. The only ways to pay off the debt will be inflation or tax increases or both—to the detriment of the economy. And while the bond markets may be accommodating at the moment, America can’t count on low interest rates forever. Either the market will impose spending discipline on our government or we will. Whom do you want it to be?

It would be ridiculous for Republicans in Congress, having won an election on issues of government spending, to turn tail on entitlement reform in 2011. No one’s saying the politics of overhauling major social programs will be easy. But there’s never been a better time to take on this considerable challenge.

The drama of the financial crisis and Great Recession have put people in the mood to take fiscal issues seriously. The pervasive sense that the government is out of control and America could therefore be going into decline helped create the Tea Party movement and spur the Republican revival. Republicans won big despite months of Democratic demagoguery on entitlements. The rise to national prominence of New Jersey governor Chris Christie shows that Americans want to be treated like adults. The experience of Christie and Indiana governor Mitch Daniels also suggests that you can maintain popularity while overhauling government finances.

It’s obvious that implementing big changes to entitlement programs will require presidential support. But just because the president is reluctant doesn’t mean Republicans can’t persuade him to change his mind. They need to make a good faith effort to do so, and then take their case to the voters. For the Republicans to use the president’s inaction to justify inaction of their own would be not only cowardly but politically foolish.

By laying out the GOP case for entitlement reform this year, Republicans in Congress would show themselves to be the “adult” party. They’d force 2012 GOP candidates to be serious. They might even find bipartisan support for changes sooner rather than later. They’d also prove to the voters that they know why they were sent to Washington. What would it mean, after all, if the Tea Partying GOP House shied away from attempting to address federal spending in all its particulars—discretionary and nondiscretionary?

Why, it would mean failure.

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