Why I expect Obama to try to cut Social Security

Short answer: Because he’s telling us he wants to. To see why I think that, read on. To see what you can do, especially if you’re just a citizen like me, click here. (Media folks are also invited to click; you can help a lot.)

About two weeks ago I wrote:

Obama may cut Social Security benefits during Lame Duck session following election

for the excellent reason that Sen. Bernie Sanders thought so and I agreed with him. Since then, much has happened, in the sense that nothing has changed — a “nothing” that tells the tale. I’m now convinced that Obama is planning Social Security cuts. Here’s why.

Like many progressive voters (as opposed to “progressive” office-holders), I was alarmed at Obama’s language about Social Security. He seemed to be wanting to “fix” it. (Psst: It’s not broken.) Then in the first presidential debate, Obama said he didn’t think there was much difference between himself and Mitt Romney on Social Security.

Here’s Huff Post reporter Sam Stein on the ensuing progressive consternation and the campaign’s initial clarification (my emphases throughout):

The Obama campaign played a bit of debate cleanup on Friday night with a blog post clarifying that there are, indeed, differences between the president’s and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s approaches to Social Security.

The post on Obama’s reelection campaign site comes on the heels of Wednesday night’s debate, during which the president said he didn’t think that he and Romney differed on reforming the entitlement program. …

Progressive activists and even some top Democrats called the whole approach inexplicable. … [T]he [Obama campaign’s] decision to not use the [Social Security] issue as a political cudgel in such a highly watched moment — indeed, to suggest it wasn’t a campaign issue at all — seemed like a major misstep.

One man’s “misstep” is another man’s truth-telling, that other man being Obama. Since the debate there have been several attempts by the campaign, especially via Stephanie Cutter, the deputy campaign manager, to clarify Obama’s Social Security position to progressives. Here’s a recent campaign-email clarification (as quoted by Taylor Marsh). Cutter writes:

I want to clear up where President Obama and Mitt Romney agree — and where they disagree — on one particularly important issue: Social Security.

President Obama and Romney agree that we need to make gradual changes to make sure Social Security stays solvent over the long term. The disagreement is over how to do it — and that’s where President Obama and Romney have fundamentally different ideas.

President Obama will under no circumstances agree to put your retirement at risk by privatizing Social Security, and he will reject any plan that slashes Social Security benefits.

Ms. Cutter has done an admirable job of clarifying Obama’s position — I mean that sincerely, and I’m not putting “clarifying” in quotes. This really is clear.

Unfortunately, what’s clear is that the president is determined to leave himself wiggle room for cuts. Here’s another recent piece from the campaign, this one a blog post at barackobama.com:

On one issue—Social Security—it’s worth clarifying where President Obama and Governor Romney agree and where they disagree. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney know that the program is solvent for more than two decades and that there’s a need for gradual reforms to the benefits that millions of seniors have worked for, paid for, and earned. …

[President Obama] believes that no current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced, and he will not accept any approach that slashes benefits for future generations.

This language is consistent with a proposal that keeps the benefits of current and near retirees whole — and makes non-“slash” cuts to the benefits of downstream generations. Stop here, read those two campaign clarifications again, and ask if I’m not right in this paragraph.

If I am right, we’re back to a plan that I earlier described as the “real Grand Bargain“:

The real Grand Bargain betrayal is between the generations, not between the Dems and Republicans. … The real offer on the table is from Billionaires of both parties (Our Betters) to older Americans, and it goes like this:  “If you’ll agree to screw your children and grandchildren out of [some of] their benefits, we’ll promise to exempt your own.”

I want to thank Ms. Cutter and the campaign — again, I’m entirely sincere in this. I also want to thank President Obama. His (and their) refusal to lie outright about his post-election plan is admirable, and puts him squarely at odds with the “say anything to win” crowd on the other side.

The problem is that by not lying, he’s told us something terrible, disturbing. This wiggle-room language makes me entirely certain that Obama will cut Social Security benefits if he can. Watch in December; let’s see if I (and he) are not true to our words.

What will be the result?

We could be witness to a two-part disaster.

One of those disasters could sink the Democratic Party. Here’s Paul Krugman on that:

Yet there is a sense in which the election is indeed a referendum, but of a different kind. Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy. …

If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age. But here’s the question: Will that election result be honored?

I ask that question because we already know what Mr. Obama will face if re-elected: a clamor from Beltway insiders demanding that he immediately return to his failed political strategy of 2011, in which he made a Grand Bargain over the budget deficit his overriding priority. Now is the time, he’ll be told, to fix America’s entitlement problem once and for all. There will be calls … for him to officially endorse Simpson-Bowles, the budget proposal issued by the co-chairmen of his deficit commission (although never accepted by the commission as a whole).

Krugman frames his piece as “Obama, who hasn’t made up his mind, needs to know the following.” What’s the piece that Krugman thinks Obama needs to know?

[I]f a re-elected president were to endorse [Simpson-Bowles plan to cut the safety net], he would be betraying the trust of the voters who returned him to office.

And elsewhere, the Professor writes:

[T]his [plan by Senate leaders to implement Simpson-Bowles in the lame duck session] would be politically stupid as well as a betrayal of the electorate. If you don’t think Republicans would turn around and accuse Democrats of cutting Social Security — probably even before the ink was dry — you’ve been living under a rock.

But Obama has shown us, time and again, that he has made up his mind. He’s of the same mind as Bill Clinton, the entire DLC-led Democratic Party, and the Washington Beltway consensus (Digby’s Village). That betrayal of what the electorate truly truly wants — and frankly, what they really need as well — could sink the party.

The Republicans will certainly try. They know they have a generational problem — theirs is dying fast. What better stick to beat the Democrats with to win younger voters than the death-by-paper-cuts dismantling of Social Security the Dems seem determined to attempt.

The second disaster is even worse, in my opinion — Obama may well succeed. David Koch has given his go-ahead to tax increases — the only roadblock to the most recent Obama Grand Bargain attempt. The Koch-funded Tea Party office-holders (who are not the Tea Party voters) have been given their marching orders from AFP headquarters — get this done.

If those two — Obama and David Koch — succeed  we could see the clock start rolling back before 1934. Once Social Security is means-tested, it’s welfare, not a universal insurance program. Once benefit cuts are started — via changes to the retirement age and cost-of-living adjustments, for example — where will they stop? As I see it, with manufacturing headed to Asia under both parties and belt-tightening the norm, the country’s going to be squeezed for at least another five years, if not decades. All of which is — yep, reason for even more cuts.

Action opportunity

Folks, this is not over. The campaign still has about a month to run. Obama can take this issue off the table any time he want to. And if he doesn’t want to do that voluntarily, you can help him. How? Ask him point-blank:

Are you planning any cuts to Social Security benefits? If so, which ones?

Or, if you want to go for more positive framing:

Mr. Obama, you’ve said you want to strengthen Social Security. The electorate is solidly behind you but they’re nervous about cuts. To reassure the public and clarify your differences with Romney-Ryan, will you promise to veto any bill that contains any cuts whatsoever to Social Security benefits, no matter what else the bill contains?

Journalists, you can ask either question any time you like — you don’t need permission. The public would love to hear the answer from the candidate’s mouth. You have column inches and access; that and boldness is all you need.

Readers, you too can ask these questions — you don’t need permission either. Can you get into an Obama event? Then go. Bring your friends. (And your cell-phone cameras.) Help Obama not sink the Democratic Party. Help Obama re-clarify his own position. Help Obama race from waffling language like the plague — which he will certainly do if asked these questions often enough in public enough places. With cameras.

You can also urge your senator to sign Senator Sanders letter swearing not to support any cuts to Social Security as part of a deficit reduction package. The letter has 29 signatures and needs 41. This action is also urgent.

Debate moderators, you too can ask these questions — though I don’t know whether the terms of your contract with the campaign-controlled debate commission requires you to get permission or not. It’s certainly true that just like Romney, Obama must also list the program cuts he would make — including cuts to Social Security. Before the election.

This, I would think, would be the job of a good debate moderator.

I would like to see action from all three groups. But I’m especially interested in what readers and their friends can do. The Beltway Village may not do its job. but you can do yours. A small brigade of focused citizen questioners could certainly have a huge effect. You could, in fact, be the saviors of Social Security, until the next time they try.

And that’s not nothing. Guarding the progressive frontier; if you’re a progressive, that’s the job. Joe Sudbay did it by himself, and so can you. Always remember, you don’t need permission to act.


To follow or send links: @Gaius_Publius

Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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