In contrast to a Reddit Q&A session that clarified the President’s position on the White House microbrewery and his favorite basketball player, Time Magazine offered a far more revealing look at the President’s plans for a second term, particularly as it relates to social insurance.

I’ve been laying out repeatedly that the great debate on fiscal issues occasioned by Paul Ryan’s entry into the race was not so great. That’s true on both sides. The Vice Presidential nominee spent last night clouding his true ambitions and criticizing the President for not devoting enough money to the auto bailout and not spending enough on Medicare. Meanwhile, when Obama gets into traditional media settings, he lets his true nature come out about being prepared to make a range of compromises, particularly as they relate to the deficit.

First of all, Obama explains precisely the nature of the narrowness in the economic policy debate:

And I still believe that that’s what the American people are looking for: solving problems. What I’ve tried to do is to take ideas from everyone — Democrats and Republicans — that I thought would make a difference in the lives of working families. That’s why the Recovery Act — a third of it was tax cuts, traditionally an idea Republicans supported. That’s why our health care bill relies on private insurance and why it looks so much like Governor Romney’s health care bill [...]

And I will continue to insist to my Democratic colleagues that not all good ideas just come from Democrats and that if we’re going to reduce our deficit in a serious way, we are going to have to cut some spending even on some programs that I like. If we’re going to be serious about energy independence, then we can’t just have a knee-jerk opposition to the incredible resources that we have in our country. We’ve got to have an all-of-the-above strategy that develops oil and gas and clean coal along with wind and solar.

After this, he improbably says that the election is “going to give voters a very clear choice.” There’s a discontinuity there, part of which can be absorbed by the realities of what the Romney campaign has proposed on paper – massive tax cuts, spending slashes on Medicaid and the poor that would cut to the bone. But Obama explains that his goal would be merely to cut those programs, just not all the way back that nobody could benefit from them.

My message to Democrats is the same message I’ve got to Republicans and independents, and that is, I want a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines additional revenue, particularly from folks like me who can afford it, with prudent cuts on both the discretionary side and the mandatory side but that still allows us to make investments in the things we need to grow.

And that means I’m prepared to look at reforms in Medicaid. I’m prepared to look at smart reforms on Medicare. But there are things I won’t do, and this is part of the debate we’re having in this election. I do not think it is a good idea to set up Medicare as a voucher system in which seniors are spending up to $6,000 more out of pocket. That was the original proposal Congressman Ryan put forward. And there is still a strong impulse I think among some Republicans for that kind of approach.

I’m not going to slash Medicaid to the point where disabled kids or seniors who are in nursing homes are basically uncared for. We’re not going to violate the basic bargain that Social Security represents.

This is what passes for a great debate in American politics circa 2012. Sadder still, it IS a debate, just on a scale that leaves out the perspective of a substantial chunk, perhaps the majority, of the country.

Some will say that there’s an election to win, and Obama needs the support of 17 swing voters in Ohio and Iowa, and they would not take kindly to some radically transformative policy prescription. In fact, he says later in the interview, “We’re not looking for anything radical here. And frankly, the country doesn’t need radical changes.” I would argue that the reason he is depending on those 17 swing voters is that we’ve had three-plus years of 8% unemployment, and a focus on deficits rather than the textbook policies that bring back an economy have a lot to do with that. In fact, those job stats and the economic realities DEMAND something radical here, and it’s a supreme tragedy that millions of Americans haven’t seen anything of the sort.

The President has been dedicated to this fight, on social insurance and on a grand bargain, since the pre-inaugural transition, and at virtually every step of his Presidency. He hasn’t gotten his wish because of intransigence from Republicans on tax increases, to provide some cover. But he says something else ominous here, when asked about the second-term agenda:

We won’t be in that same kind of crisis, putting-out-the-fire mentality, in 2013–2014. There are a handful of big issues that we’re going to have to deal with. We’ve got to get our fiscal house in order. And so, one way or another, before midyear of 2013, we will have solved that problem. Either Mitt Romney will have won, and he and members of the Republican Congress will have pushed through their tax cuts and all the cuts that they are proposing, and people will be able to assess whether that worked. Or we’re going to have a balanced approach that I’ve proposed.

So that’s the promise. A destruction of the safety net or a weakening of it. There’s your great debate; it’s a debate, I just wouldn’t call it so great. Place your bets.

As a side note, to understand how Democrats became the party of austerity, do read this Corey Robin piece for the historical background. It’s well worth your time.