Bottom line first — Barack Obama has talked about Social Security and the other social programs many times, almost continuously in fact since 2006. A number of those quotes are shown below. All are remarkably similar to each other (“balanced approach” — “shared sacrifice” — “outdated policies and ideologies”), with one exception. That exception is the set of pronouncements made during the 2008 campaign against John McCain.
Only in that campaign did Obama talk about preserving Social Security by raising the salary cap and not cutting benefits. As a reminder, here is how close that campaign was:
For most of the race, Obama was never up by more than five points, and for some of it, he was losing or in a statistical dead heat. In fact, the race was upside-down as late as September 7, shortly after the Republican convention.
This campaign was Obama’s (and Robert Rubin’s) one shot at the crown. If he wins now, he likely wins in 2012 and neoliberals run the place for the next eight years. If Obama loses now, he’s back to being an Illinois politician with more past than future and Rubin has to wait at least four years for his next shot.
Does this whet your appetite, at least for some pertinent and tasty quotes? If so, read on.
Did Obama knowingly lie in 2008 about his Social Security plans?
I’m asking in all seriousness, in the literal meaning of lie. I’m not using “lie” as code for “he kinda sorta meant it at the time.” I’m using lie in the sense that a person has a plan, then presents the opposite plan in a job interview, then executes the original plan after getting the job.
Did Obama knowingly fake his position, say the opposite of his intentions, in order to win the presidency? I asked that question speculatively at the end of this post (look for the phrase “World Class L-word”). But after I did some digging, we can now look at the evidence with more assurance of getting an actual answer. (Huge thanks to Daily Kos diarist david mizner for all of the post-2008 quotes below.)
As you read, note the following: First, as I said above, quotes from all periods but one are of a piece; they have the same Rubinite “globalization means too-bad-for-you, austerity, tough-love” message. Only the 2008 campaign quotes differ.
Barack Obama on Social Security, 2006–2012, long-form quotes
Senator Barack Obama, 2006, at the Hamilton Project think tank opening (my emphasis):
I want to thank Bob [Robert Rubin] and Roger [Altman] and Peter [Orszag] for inviting me to be here today. … [W]hen Roger originally called to invite me, not only to this forum but to invite me to engage in this project, I couldn’t help but think that this was the sort of breath of fresh air that I think this town needs.
We have all known for some time that the forces of globalization have changed the rules of the game—how we work, how we prosper, how we compete with the rest of the world. We all know that the coming baby boomers’ retirement will only add to the challenges that we face in this new era. Unfortunately, while the world has changed around us, Washington has been remarkably slow to adapt twenty-first century solutions for a twenty-first century economy. As so many of us have seen, both sides of the political spectrum have tended to cling to outdated policies and tired ideologies instead of coalescing around what actually works.
For those on the left, and I include myself in that category, too many of us have been interested in defending programs the way they were written in 1938, believing that if we admit the need to modernize these programs to fit changing times, then the other side will use those acknowledgements to destroy them altogether.
Watch the whole speech here. This is April 5, 2006. Barack Obama was the new junior senator from Illinois and had already given his “national introduction” speech to the 2004 Democratic Convention, introduced by Robert Rubin–disciple Bill Clinton. His presidential campaign began the following year.
Is this “Grand Bargain” Obama, reassuring free-trader “Bob” Rubin that he wants what they want? Sure looks like it to me, on both counts.
Candidate Obama, 2008, Meet the Press (his emphasis):
… and when you look at how we should approach Social Security, I believe … that cutting retire-, uh, cutting benefits is not the right answer. I meet too many seniors all across the country who are *struggling* … with the limited Social Security benefits that they have. That raising the retirement age is not the the best option …
Candidate Obama, 2008, AARP 50th Convention:
But John McCain’s campaign has gone even further, suggesting that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age.
Let me be clear. I will not do either.
Candidate Obama, 2008, campaign website:
I think that’s why the best way forward is to first look to adjust the tax on the payroll cap. 97% of Americans will see absolutely no change in their taxes under my proposal. 97%.
What it [my proposal] does allow us to do is to extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.
You can watch clips of all three quotes here. This is Obama making campaign promises. He is very specific — No to Chained CPI, No to raising the retirement age, and significantly, Yes to raising the salary cap. Gone is the talk of adapting to the harsh realities of a globalized (by “free trade agreements”) world.
President-Elect Obama, 2009 (ABC news report):
I asked the president-elect, “At the end of the day, are you really talking about over the course of your presidency some kind of grand bargain? That you have tax reform, healthcare reform, entitlement reform including Social Security and Medicare, where everybody in the country is going to have to sacrifice something, accept change for the greater good?”
“Yes,” Obama said. …
“And eventually sacrifice from everyone?” I asked.
“Everybody’s going to have to give. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game,” Obama said.
He’s not even sworn into office.
President Obama, July 2011, press conference:
“Essentially, what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense. We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.”
President Obama, October 2012 (off-the-record interview with the Des Moines Register) :
“It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs.”
President Obama, April 2013 on his latest budget (per Washington Post):
President Obama will release a budget next week that proposes significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and fewer tax hikes than in the past[.]
The short-form of this is below.
This is the quick-scan version of the quotes above.
Senator Barack Obama, 2006
[T]he forces of globalization have changed the rules of the game … the coming baby boomers’ retirement will only add to the challenges that we face in this new era. Unfortunatelly … too many of us have been interested in defending programs the way they were written in 1938[.]
Candidate Obama, 2008:
… cutting [Social Security] benefits is not the right answer [and] raising the retirement age is not the the best option …
But John McCain’s campaign [suggests] the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear. I will not do either.
[T]he best way forward is to first look to adjust the tax on the payroll cap. … [My proposal allows] us to … to extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.
President-Elect Obama, 2009
“Everybody’s going to have to give [on entitlement reform]. Everybody’s going to have to have some skin in the game.”
President Obama, 2009–2013
2011: “Essentially, what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense. We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security.”
2012: “It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain …”
2013: [Obama's budget] proposes significant cuts to Medicare and Social Security and fewer tax hikes than in the past[.]
The only differences are with Candidate Obama. The minute he’s elected, he reverts to “shared sacrifice” mode.
Which of those statements is not like the others?
I respectfully suggest that President Obama agrees completely with his pre-campaign (and Robert Rubinite) self, then-Senator Obama. Also that 2008 candidate-Obama completely disagrees with both his earlier and later selves. The return-to-Rubin happens, in fact, in January 2009, less than two months after winning election.
I therefore strongly suspect that Obama knowingly and deliberately lied during his 2008 presidential campaign. (And if the 2008 NAFTA “political maneuvering” quotes are correct, this was not the only instance.)
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