The state of the union is … leaderless.

Sounds harsh, but when it comes to digging America out from what President Obama calls its “mountain of debt,” I’m becoming increasingly worried that this assessment is accurate.

The president talks the talk about fiscal responsibility. But the evidence suggests he’s not willing to spend the political capital to translate that talk into action.

Judge Obama by his own standards. “We have to signal seriousness in this,” he told The Washington Post just before the inauguration, “by making sure that some of the hard decisions are made under my watch and not under somebody else’s.”

So what hard decisions has the president made? On the plus side of the ledger, the president worked to ensure that the costly expansion of health coverage was coupled with potentially cost-saving measures to control Medicare spending. Emphasis on potentially.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he proposed a five-year freeze on discretionary spending, two years longer than his previous offer.

But as the president himself recognized, this kind of nibbling around the edges of the budget is entirely inadequate.

“To make further progress, we have to stop pretending that cutting this kind of spending alone will be enough,” he said. “It won’t.” Except the president then offered nothing else of substance about what else he envisioned — and would be willing to push for.

Some serious people with unquestioned bona fides on fiscal responsibility grasped at wispy tendrils of seriousness in the president’s remarks. He mentioned Social Security! He talked about tax reform! I hope they are right but fear they are deluding themselves.

Examine the president’s words, and you see nothing new or specific. It hardly constitutes bravery to call for a bipartisan Social Security fix that doesn’t slash benefits. At that level of generality, who would disagree?

The health care law — if implemented as planned — is merely a down payment on cost containment. But the president’s only specific was to repeat his offer to join with Republicans on medical malpractice reform. This is attacking a mountain with a teaspoon.

Corporate tax reform is a great idea but not a solution to the fiscal problem. The president’s opening bid was to fix the corporate tax code without adding to the deficit.

As to the individual income tax system, the president repeated his stale complaint that “we simply can’t afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.” No mention of the affordability of the tax cuts for everyone else.

In fact, when the president discussed income taxes, he cited the need to “simplify the individual tax code” without daring to whisper that the real goal needs to be more revenue. “Members of both parties have expressed an interest in doing this, and I am prepared to join them,” Obama said. Joining up is not my definition of leadership.

Administration officials insist that proffering more in the State of the Union would have been self-defeating. Negotiating in public does not work, this argument goes. Do corporate tax reform first and the larger overhaul will come more easily.

This would be more convincing if the president’s behind-the-scenes track record were more reassuring. Obama put little muscle behind the legislative effort to create a fiscal commission. Then, having established one by executive order, he did nothing to assure its success, according to sources close to the process. The commission was tantalizingly close to getting the super-majority needed for congressional action — former Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern had promised to be the 14th vote, the sources said — but the administration did not lift a finger to help by lobbying other Democrats.

On Tuesday, the most Obama could manage to choke out about his own commission was that “I don’t agree with all their proposals, but they made important progress.”

Into this disturbing vacuum of leadership come Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner and Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who have assembled a bipartisan group pushing for tax reform and other deficit reduction this year.

When I spoke with them after the speech, they emphasized two points: that nothing would be accomplished without presidential involvement, and that it would be a mistake to let things slide into the election year or, inevitably, beyond.

“Every one of these painful choices gets harder every day we don’t do anything,” Warner said.

Wise words. If only we had heard more of that from the president himself.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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