By contrast, failure to raise the federal debt ceiling — now $16.699 trillion — could be much more damaging because the government couldn’t borrow the money it needs to sustain all its operations. …

That’s why any shutdown negotiations should also include an increase in the debt ceiling. But whether the White House will engage is unclear. President Obama has repeatedly said he won’t negotiate the debt ceiling: Congress should raise it as a matter of course, he says. This sounds responsible, but it ducks the real budget issue, which is coping with the steady rise in spending on the elderly.

Here, Obama is as guilty as his tea party and Republican foes of evading a true debate. He hasn’t confronted the reality that Social Security and Medicare are slowly squeezing most other government programs and putting upward pressure on both taxes and deficits. The central budget problem is to reconcile what’s politically popular today with what’s good for the country tomorrow. Obama’s failure to frame the debate in these terms has left a political vacuum — into which has poured much frustration, hypocrisy and destructiveness.