Obama V. Social Security
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Editor, The Konformist
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Ironic Email of the Month
From the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee:
I need your urgent help. Republicans are gearing up to enact their radical plan to balance the budget on the backs of seniors, women and people with disabilities.
At this moment, Speaker Boehner is crafting a deficit deal that would gut Medicare and Social Security, while slashing benefits for seniors and the middle class in order to make sure he protects tax breaks for millionaires. This is unacceptable and House Democrats will not stand for this.
We need to show our strength on this issue with one, unified voice and time is critical.
Sign our petition right now and join me in telling Republicans that Social Security and Medicare cuts are off the table. We refuse to let Republicans balance the budget on the backs of seniors, women and people with disabilities while supporting tax breaks for millionaires.
Robalini's Note - The most important sentence by Krugman here: "It's worth noting that even Republicans weren't suggesting cuts to Social Security; this is something Mr. Obama and those he listens to apparently want for its own sake."
What Obama Wants
July 7, 2011
On Thursday, President Obama met with Republicans to discuss a debt deal. We don't know exactly what was proposed, but news reports before the meeting suggested that Mr. Obama is offering huge spending cuts, possibly including cuts to Social Security and an end to Medicare's status as a program available in full to all Americans, regardless of income.
Obviously, the details matter a lot, but progressives, and Democrats in general, are understandably very worried. Should they be? In a word, yes.
Now, this might just be theater: Mr. Obama may be pulling an anti-Corleone, making Republicans an offer they can't accept. The reports say that the Obama plan also involves significant new revenues, a notion that remains anathema to the Republican base. So the goal may be to paint the G.O.P. into a corner, making Republicans look like intransigent extremists which they are.
But let's be frank. It's getting harder and harder to trust Mr. Obama's motives in the budget fight, given the way his economic rhetoric has veered to the right. In fact, if all you did was listen to his speeches, you might conclude that he basically shares the G.O.P.'s diagnosis of what ails our economy and what should be done to fix it. And maybe that's not a false impression; maybe it's the simple truth.
One striking example of this rightward shift came in last weekend's presidential address, in which Mr. Obama had this to say about the economics of the budget: "Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can't afford so we can put the economy on sounder footing, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs."
That's three of the right's favorite economic fallacies in just two sentences. No, the government shouldn't budget the way families do; on the contrary, trying to balance the budget in times of economic distress is a recipe for deepening the slump. Spending cuts right now wouldn't "put the economy on sounder footing." They would reduce growth and raise unemployment. And last but not least, businesses aren't holding back because they lack confidence in government policies; they're holding back because they don't have enough customers a problem that would be made worse, not better, by short-term spending cuts.
In his brief remarks after Thursday's meeting, by the way, Mr. Obama seemed to reiterate the Herbert Hooveresque view that deficit reduction is what we need to "grow the economy."
People have asked me why the president's economic advisers aren't telling him not to believe in the confidence fairy that is, not to believe the assertion, popular on the right but overwhelmingly refuted by the evidence, that slashing spending in the face of a depressed economy will magically create jobs. My answer is, what economic advisers? Almost all the high-profile economists who joined the Obama administration early on have either left or are leaving.
Nor have they been replaced. As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, there are a "stunning" number of vacancies in important economic posts. So who's defining the administration's economic views?
Some of what we're hearing is presumably coming from the political team, whose members seem to believe that a move toward Republican positions, reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton's "triangulation" in the 1990s, is the key to Mr. Obama's re-election. And Mr. Clinton did, indeed, rebound from a big defeat in the 1994 midterms to win big two years later. But some of us think that the rebound had less to do with his rhetorical move to the center than with the five million jobs the economy added over those two years an achievement not likely to be repeated this time, especially not in the face of harsh spending cuts.
Anyway, I don't believe that it's all political calculation. Watching Mr. Obama and listening to his recent statements, it's hard not to get the impression that he is now turning for advice to people who really believe that the deficit, not unemployment, is the top issue facing America right now, and who also believe that the great bulk of deficit reduction should come from spending cuts. It's worth noting that even Republicans weren't suggesting cuts to Social Security; this is something Mr. Obama and those he listens to apparently want for its own sake.
Which raises the big question: If a debt deal does emerge, and it overwhelmingly reflects conservative priorities and ideology, should Democrats in Congress vote for it?
Mr. Obama's people will no doubt argue that their fellow party members should trust him, that whatever deal emerges was the best he could get. But it's hard to see why a president who has gone out of his way to echo Republican rhetoric and endorse false conservative views deserves that kind of trust.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 8, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: What Obama Wants..
Breaking Point: Obama and the Death of the Democratic Party
According to both the Washington Post and the New York Times, Obama is proposing cuts to Social Security in exchange for GOP support for tax hikes. Lori Montgomery in the Post:
At a meeting with top House and Senate leaders set for Thursday morning, Obama plans to argue that a rare consensus has emerged about the size and scope of the nation's budget problems and that policymakers should seize the moment to take dramatic action. As part of his pitch, Obama is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security, according to people in both parties with knowledge of the proposal.
And Jay Carney's carefully chosen weasel-words today do not contradict this:
"There is no news here the President has always said that while social security is not a major driver of the deficit, we do need to strengthen the program and the President said in the State of the Union Address that he wanted to work with both parties to do so in a balanced way that preserves the promise of the program and doesn't slash benefits."
Nobody ever says they want to "cut" Social Security or Medicare. They want to "save" it. Just ask Pete Peterson, he wants to "save" it. Likewise AARP. They don't want reduced benefits for senior citizens, they want to "preserve" it for future generations. If they have an enormous customer base they can market private "add-on" accounts and other retirement products to when Social Security goes bye-bye, I guess that's just a happy coincidence.
Now if you think that this is something the President is doing because it's the only way to get Republican cooperation you can stop reading here, because we're going to disagree. From the moment he took the White House, the President has wanted to cut Social Security benefits. David Brooks reported that three administration officials called him to say Obama "is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending" in March of 2009. You can only live in denial for so long and still lay claim to being tethered to reality.
And if you think it's only the President, and the progressives in Congress will oppose him, we'll have to disagree about that too. Nancy Pelosi can always come up with the votes she needs to pass whatever the White House wants, and she'll do it again this time. It's her only chance to ever be Speaker again. If the Democrats somehow manage to retake control of the House, she needs Obama's support. She'll shake her fist and say things like any health care bill "without a strong public option will not pass the House" and then turn around and force her caucus to walk the plank.
Progressive Democratic "leaders" like Raul Grijalva will fold once again like a house of cards if need be and they know it. Today, the Huffington Post reports:
Progressives Won't Criticize Obama For Proposed Social Security Cuts
Grijalva and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), a vice chair of the caucus, defended the president for signaling he would be willing to take a look at changes to the programs, arguing there are ways to restructure entitlement spending to save money without hurting beneficiaries.
Translation: They'll wait for the whip count to see if their votes are needed, and if not, they can let somebody else be the "rotating villain" this time. But just in case, they're leaving the back door open for themselves.
What we're watching is the death of the Democratic Party. Or, at least the Democratic Party as most of us have known it. The one that has taken its identity in the modern era from FDR and the New Deal, from Keynesianism and the social safety net. Despite any of its other shortcomings (and they are myriad), the Democratic Party has stood as a symbol for commitment to these principles. As recently as 2006, Democrats retook the House in a surprise wave election because the public feared that George Bush would destroy Social Security, and they trusted the Democrats over Republicans to secure it. Just like George Bush, Obama now wants to "save" Social Security .by giving those who want to burn it to the ground the the very thing they've wanted for decades.
Any member of any party who participates in this effort does not deserve, and should not get, the support of anyone who values Social Security and cares about its preservation. The amount of damage that the Democrats under Obama have been able to do has been immeasurable, by virtue of the fact that they are less awful that George Bush. But where George Bush failed, Obama will probably succeed.
Which means we're watching another casualty here: Democracy. Or at least, the illusion that we live in a democratic society. The public, regardless of party, overwhelmingly opposes cuts to Social Security and Medicare. But elected officials of both parties are hell-bent on conspiring to bring the programs to an end. They seem to have come to grips with a fact that the public has not: their tenure in office depends on carrying out the wishes of oligarchical elites.
There is only one thing you can reasonably conclude as you watch the political theater that is transpiring: what the voting public thinks really isn't all that important. And to the extent that it does matter, it can easily be channeled by those with sufficient money to pay the tab. Samuel Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, but in our modern era, that honor goes to tribalism. The list of horrors that people found intolerable when George Bush was in office, but are now blithely accepting because "Sarah Palin would be worse," grows longer every day.
We'll fight this, because it's the right thing to do. We will probably lose. But we will make it as painful as possible for any politician from any party to participate in this wholesale looting of the public sphere, this "shock doctrine" for America. And maybe along the way we'll get a vision of what comes next. Because what we believe in as Americans, and what we stand for, is not something the Democratic party represents any more.
If Obama cuts Social Security...
The president indicates that funding for the hallmark Democratic program is on the table. Is this the last straw?
Thursday, Jul 7, 2011
Wednesday night, the Washington Post reported that on top of the big cuts to Medicare he's already proposed, President Obama is now considering endorsing cuts to Social Security. In making this announcement (which formally embraces the concept of Social Security cuts first proposed by Obama's debt commission), the White House has lost all credibility in arguing that its 2012 political problems are the result of unfair expectations, particularly on the left. At the same time, the White House has finally exposed the strategy behind what so many of its apologists insisted was deft "three dimensional chess" on behalf of old-school liberalism -- and as we see, these tactics have nothing to do with liberalism and everything to do with Orwell-ism.
To review: The Wall Street Journal reports that "across a wide range of measures -- employment growth, unemployment levels, bank lending, economic output, income growth, home prices and household expectations for financial well-being -- the economy's improvement since the recession's end in June 2009 has been the worst, or one of the worst, since the government started tracking these trends after World War II." In light of this miserable situation, it's no surprise that Gallup's Frank Newport reports that the president's job approval rating "has been hovering near the fault line between probable re-election and probable 'one-term' presidency."
For most of the president's tenure, he, his staffers and his devoted-but-dwindling army of sycophants have insisted that the political fallout from the crushing recession reflects unrealistic expectations of Obama in the wake of George W. Bush's destructive reign. It is, dare I say, an audacious claim, especially coming from a candidate who asked us all to have the "audacity of hope" -- and it's more than a little insulting. After all, much of the complaints about the president have been about campaign promises that he didn't just fail to fulfill -- but that he refused to even try to fulfill.
Indeed, when a political candidate promises to try to pass a public option to compete with private insurers, attempt to crack down on Wall Street abuse, do what he can to stop unfair trade deals, oppose extending his predecessors tax cuts and avoid initiating initiate costly new wars sans congressional approval, and then once in office works to kill a public option, refuses to prosecute Wall Street crimes, presses the rigged trade deals he opposed, supports the extension of his predecessor's tax cuts and starts a new war in Libya with no congressional authorization -- whose fault is it that he ends up in reelection trouble?
I'd say the answer is obvious -- I'd say that if such a politician wasn't in reelection trouble, it would be a sign that our democracy is in a deeper crisis than it already is.
But, then, merely citing this record brings accusations of treason, at least from Democratic staffers, pundits and activists in Washington. In an age of politics that has melded politicians with celebrity and activism with starfucking, to be a rank-and-file progressive and honestly examine a candidate's record during a reelection campaign is to risk being portrayed as a dangerous, seditious, ideologically zealous revolutionary.
After Wednesday night, though, the power of this kind of with-us-or-against-us partisanship will face it's ultimate test. Because while the intricacies of health care, Wall Street regulations and trade pacts can be muddled with esoterica and while Democratic presidents have shown a deft ability to soothe their base by conflating militarism with humanitarianism (the same trick, of course, that Republicans use for their militarist adventures), this Democratic president is aiding a new war on Social Security, the single most popular social program in American history, a program that the Democratic Party has -- both in principle and out of sheer self-interest -- long based its brand on. Whether Obama ultimately champions specific cuts or just floats the general possibility of such cuts, the larger news is that he has now legitimized them as a negotiating chip -- and importantly, he made such a move on his own, not because of circumstantial necessity.
To appreciate this reality, go back and read every Democratic Party press release during President Bush's 2005 failed assault on Social Security. Those press releases reminded us that Social Security is one of the most fiscally sound programs in American history, projected to run surpluses for the foreseeable future. Additionally, what problems it does face can be easily solved -- as just one example of a solution, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that had President Obama refused to extend the Bush tax cuts and instead worked to repeal them, that move alone would generate revenues equal to two and one-half times the entire Social Security shortfall over the next 75 years (yes, 75 years!).
And yet now, like that gruesome scene at the end of "Fargo," Social Security -- a pay-as-you-go embodiment of fiscal responsibility -- is being rammed into the grisly woodchipper of cynical debt-reduction politics. Only instead of a glowering Peter Stormare (or Mitt Romney) doing the pushing, thereâs a cheery President Obama insisting that cuts are really just progressive efforts to "strengthen" -- the same Obama who chastised his 2008 Republican opponent for using the same pathetic spin to shroud cuts to the same program.
This is not real politik, it is not triangulation and it isn't even Bush-ism (that is, taking unpopular positions and then just arrogantly pursuing them without regard for public will). No, we are watching a sort of Orwellian dystopia. Indeed, it is a sight to behold: a regime that believes it can say one set of things over and over and over again, and then do exactly the opposite.
Inherent in that ideology is the assumption that Americans -- and particularly Democratic voters -- are either too stupid to see the heist in process, or if they do see the heist, are too entranced by their president's power/fame/celebrity/charisma to want to do anything about it, even if what's being pilfered is Democrats' Social Security crown jewel.
The assumption, in other words, is that ignorance and fealty will permit a president to serve as an accomplice to the very grand larceny he was explicitly elected to office to oppose. Should the assumption prove true -- should Obama now be cheered on for doing to Social Security what no Republican president has ever been able to do -- the date on the calendar may say 2011, but it will really be 1984.
David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book "Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now." He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at ds@..., follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.