Within days of Christmas and the good cheer of the holiday season, two of the Washington Post's conservative columnists offered almost identical advice to President Obama and Congressional Democrats. Dare to Cut Social Security, said Michael Gerson, former adviser to George W. Bush. (Washington Post, December 28) And Robert Samuelson urged the president to "Be unfair to the boomers" by cutting Medicare and Social Security. (Washington Post, December 26)
With friends and advisers like these, the president doesn't need enemies.
Like other Beltway types, Gerson and Samuelson claim to be concerned with the burden that deficits and debt could place on the US economy. Yet very few deficit hawks led an outcry when, after the Clinton surpluses, George W. Bush cut taxes irresponsibly and started two expensive wars. Did they warn the country that deregulation of Wall Street would encourage disastrous speculation, creating the need for massively expensive taxpayer bailouts? And these guardians of fiscal virtue, who preach sacrifice by others to control deficits, offered little resistance to the $800 billion in tax cuts passed in the final days of 2010.
Now, on the heels of massive tax giveaways to America's billionaires, what is their advice to President Obama and Democrats? Impose pain on the middle class and especially the Baby Boomers by cutting Social Security and Medicare.
American family holiday gatherings are occasions for giving thanks -- and for checking how relatives are doing in these difficult times. For adults lucky enough to have living parents, Social Security and Medicare represent crucial lifelines, far more reliable than private insurance, disappearing pensions, or uncertain savings. Polls find strong majorities (old, young and in-between) opposing all proposals to cut Social Security or Medicare. Most of us return from holidays grateful that these programs have given our relatives a certain measure of independence and security, and hoping they will be there for us and our children.
Inside-the-beltway conservatives, like Gerson and Samuelson, insulated from the harsh realities that face most Americans, return determined to cut those crucial programs. While they advise sweet compromise, other conservatives in the Congress are ready to take hostages again, threatening to destabilize the US financial system by refusing to raise the debt ceiling -- unless Obama agrees to their demands.
President Obama has another choice. He can stand up and fight. He should follow the example of Bill Clinton, who faced similar threats from Newt Gingrich and Congressional Republicans. If President Obama stands up to them next year, he'll find what President Clinton found: That the country -- and his base --has rallied to his side.
The politics of capitulation would be disastrous, but fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare would send the American people an unmistakable signal that President Obama is on their side. And while the political argument for that fight is strong, the policy argument is even stronger.
The president can start by reminding the public that Social Security is funded by dedicated taxes and doesn't contribute a dime to the deficit (as even Gerson admits). He might appoint a new commission to strengthen Social Security, made up of people who actually know and support the program. It could propose ways to head off future shortfalls, including the popular option of raising the cap that limits what wealthy people pay in payroll taxes. The president could also put forward a new jobs plan, reminding the country how important growth and job creation are to reducing the budget deficit -- and to improving Social Security's finances.
The president should also remind Americans that Medicare costs are rising because overall health costs are rising. If we spent the same portion of our GDP on health care as other developed countries, Medicare spending would also stabilize. This argument, which the president has made repeatedly, has the virtue of being true. It would strengthen his hand in the fight against Republicans trying to repeal his health care legislation. Cutting Medicare or turning it into a voucher would do enormous harm to millions of Americans. And it would not solve our deficit problem.
President Obama should take the high road and ignore the advice of false friends like Gerson and Samuelson. If he refuses to capitulate to conservative blackmail, the nation will rally behind him. And if he needs another reason to fight, he should take note that Newt Gingrich and other "populist" Tea Party presidential candidates have refused to embrace Social Security and Medicare cuts proposed by "elitists" like Gerson and Samuelson. The same people who won votes in 2010 by (falsely) accusing Democrats of tampering with Medicare would love to run in 2012 claiming that Obama and his party are the ones who cut Social Security and Medicare. The president and his party should reject advice that leads them into policies that are bad for the country -- and bad for their own survival.