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Entitlement Reform? (cringe)

Word that President-Elect Obama vowed, during a meeting with Washington Post editors, to pursue "entitlement reform" set off all sorts of alarm bells among progressives on Thursday.  And rightly so. The last time a president talked about reforming entitlement programs and "saving" Social Security was a few years ago, when President Bush proposed to privatize the program.

Nobody thinks Obama wants to transform Social Security into a system that includes private retirement accounts. But the idea that he's even opening up the door to reforms that could, ultimately, lead to fundamental changes in the program has a lot of people worried.

It will be a little while, apparently, before we learn exactly what Obama has in mind--probably not until February, when Obama releases his first budget proposal and gives us the specifics of his long-term economic plan. But one reason not to panic just yet is this statement, which he made in the very same Post meeting:

"Social Security, we can solve," he said, waving his left hand. "The big problem is Medicare, which is unsustainable. . . . We can't solve Medicare in isolation from the broader problems of the health-care system."

That's absolutely correct. Social Security is basically fine, in need of a few tweaks at most. The government's long-term budget problem comes from Medicare, whose problems, in turn, reflect the dysfunctions of our health care system.

Fix health care and you can fix Medicare--which, by the way, is what Obama has promised all along.

--Jonathan Cohn