The president could be on the brink of making a serious mistake, one with grave implications for his political future and even graver implications for aging Americans. If he responds to this election by adopting the Deficit Commission's recommendation to cut Social Security, President Obama will be snatching catastrophe from the jaws of defeat. He'll be responding to the "voice of the people" by giving people something they really, really don't want.
The Campaign for America's Future and Democracy Corps commissioned a poll from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research which showed that an overwhelming 69 percent of voters agreed that "politicians should keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare" when they address the deficit.
Yet on 60 Minutes last night, the president said that we're "still confronted with the fact that the vast majority of the federal budget are things that people really think are important, like Social Security and Medicare and defense. And so, you then have to start making some tough decisions about how do we pay for those things that we think are important? ... I mean, we're gonna have to, you know, tackle some big issues like entitlements that, you know, when you listen to the Tea Party or you listen to Republican candidates they promise we're not gonna touch."
That doesn't just sound as if he's preparing to cut the Medicare and Social Security "entitlement" programs. It almost seems as if he's taunting the Tea Party and the GOP for not being tough enough to cut them. When a Democratic president sounds like he wants to outflank the Tea Party by running to its right, we're in deep trouble.
It's hard to believe he means that. And, to be fair, the president certainly didn't stick to a slash-and-burn set of deficit talking points. On the contrary, he made a strong case for infrastructure spending and other ways to "frontload investment" to get the economy moving. He said "... there are a lot of folks, particularly men, who are skilled tradesman. Who have been laid off from manufacturing plants that had closed. Went into the construction industry and the housing industry. Now, that is collapsed. And these guys are sitting around with skills, eager to work. Don't have a chance to work. It would be natural for them to go back to work in constructing roads, bridges, airports."
Except for the "particularly men" part, which wasn't helpful, that was exactly the right argument to make and he made it well. But it conflicted with the tough budget talk, leaving a muddled message that fed false impressions about the budget and Social Security. Last night we saw a deficit hawk and a deficit dove fighting it out in the cage of the president's rhetoric, and the feathers were flying.
That's part of the problem: The president and some other Democrats seem to have an almost uncontrollable impulse to be on both sides of an issue at once. It's as if they want to make amends for taking a clear stand -- in this case, on the need for short-term spending -- by undermining it with an opposing statement. Do they think they work for MSNBC, where you aren't allowed to support a political position without getting permission first?
The president isn't going to get permission to protect Social Security from Washington's opinion shapers, that's for sure. The multi-billion dollar campaign to gut that program is about to move into high gear. This month is crucial, since the Presidential Deficit Commission will issue its recommendations on December 1. The plan is to base those recommendations around deep benefit cuts, and the cut-Social-Security crowd will be pulling out all the stops to build support for it.
Cutting Social Security would be a policy disaster, and this new poll proves that it would be a political disaster, too. One of the top reasons voters gave the pollsters for not voting Republican is that the GOP "supports cutting or privatizing Social Security." This issue offers the president and his party the ideal ground for distinguishing themselves from their opponents. They can stake their ground by taking a strong stand on protecting benefits for he middle class, which voters of both parties agree is stalled or in decline.(1) But, as they say in the New York Lottery, "you can't win if you don't play."
The president was absolutely right when he said that health care costs are the "single thing that is gonna be driving the expansion of the federal government over the next several years. And so one of the things that we've said is -- we've got to start getting a better bang for our buck on that front." That's where the money is. Where the money isn't is in Social Security, a self-funded program that only requires a minor tweak. So why is everybody fixated on Social Security?
The Washington Post is the barometer of elite consensus in the Capitol, and its Editorial Board members are the Beltway cognoscenti's "permission givers." (The paper's also the beneficiary of a business arrangement in which a Peterson-funded group provides copy for its financial reporting). The Post sent a message to Washington yesterday which proclaimed that Social Security benefits must be cut because "putting the retirement program on a sustainable footing without increasing the revenue dedicated to it requires, by definition, cutting benefits in some way." The Post repeats the Washington elite's mantra that cutting benefits is the "sober" and "serious" thing to do. (In Washington, "serious" means anything that has grave consequences for someone else.)
But who says you can't increase Social Security revenue? Why, the elite, that's who. The program has a $2.6 trillion surplus, and the public overwhelmingly prefers an increase in the payroll tax cap to any cuts in benefits, which would solve the problem for all eternity (at least as actuaries measure eternity). Just as Peter Orszag did last week, the Post doesn't find any faults with this approach. Instead they - like Orszag, and Alice Rivlin, and Alan Simpson, and so many others - merely pretend it doesn't exist. In Washington, any option the elite doesn't like simply vanishes.
The president didn't mention lifting the payroll tax cap last night, either, although he campaigned on it.
Last night's appearance raised the troubling possibility that the White House will respond to this month's election by falling even more in line with the Washington elite's way of thinking. "We have to start making serious choices," said the president. (Yes, he used that code word.) He continued, "I've got a deficit commission that I've put forward that is gonna be releasing recommendations for how we can start reducing the deficit. And I don't know yet what they're gonna say, but I do know what the federal budget looks like."
Actually a lot of people, including the president, do know what the Deficit Commission will say, except for a tweak here and there. And yes, we know what the Federal deficit looks like. But now we also know what the Greenberg poll looks like, too. And we know something else: That Social Security doesn't contribute one dime to the Federal deficit. That observation was conspicuously missing from the president's remarks last night.
A lot of people also know what an old person struggling to make ends meet looks like. The president certainly does, since he dedicated the first part of his career to helping people like that. Let's hope that memory guides him in the weeks to come.
It was surprising to see that more voters have lost faith in Obama than they had in Bill Clinton at the same point in Clinton's presidency. More of them have lost hope that Obama can succeed, and more have "given up," than was true of Clinton in 1994. But that doesn't mean that we should give up. Progressives needed to educate Bill Clinton and his party about Social Security, too, after they came perilously close to embracing the privatization movement. Once they did, the result succeeded both as politics and as policy. It's time for progressive to mobilize again to save the Democrats from themselves -- not for the Democrats' benefit, but for the benefit of those who rely on Social Security.
If the president and his party can be brought around again this year, Social Security can be a success story for them. More importantly, it can be a success story for the middle class, lower income, female, and minority Americans who would be hurt by benefit cuts. It's not too late for progressives to change hearts and minds in the White House and on Capitol Hill -- but time is growing short.
(1) Actual statement: "America is no longer a country with a rising middle class." 57% of people agreed (including 62% of independents) and only 36% disagreed.
Richard (RJ) Eskow, a consultant and writer (and former insurance/finance executive), is a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future. This post was produced as part of the Strengthen Social Security campaign. Richard also blogs at A Night Light.
He can be reached at "email@example.com."
Website: Eskow and Associates