Thursday, January 27, 2011

Be Wary

There was ample reason to believe, a few weeks ago, that President Obama intended to endorse, during his upcoming State of the Union message, a proposal to raise gradually the eligibility age for Social Security, alter the formula for determining the cost-of-living increase, or some other idea for reducing benefits. Privatization, however, would be, in media-speak, off-the-table. Or a non-starter.

Outrage by the left blogosphere apparently steered the President away from recommending any changes to undermine the system. Instead, Obama stated (transcript here)

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations. (Applause.) We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market. (Applause.)

On Wednesday morning, White House adviser David Axelrod met with, as attendee Dave Bowers of Daily Kos termed it, "new media types representing center-left organizations" to address their concerns about the President's speech of the previous evening.

The first two questions pertained to Social Security, with Bowers coming to a few conclusions following Axelrod's response. He is convinced that the Administration is opposed to privatization, a conclusion easily reached by Obama's condemnation of "subjecting Americans ' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market." But we already knew that; surrogate after surrogate has appeared the last few months on cable television and, when asked about cuts to Social Security, eagerly criticize privatization. It is only one concession, but a crucial one.

Nonetheless, as Bowers notes, "The Obama administration is not willing to repudiate the “crisis” narrative surrounding Social Security that dominates the national political media." The President raised the topic of SS in the context of the "the bipartisan fiscal commission I created last year," whose charge was to chart a strategy to reduce the national debt. And after the applause at the tail end of his remarks about SS, Obama followed with "and if we truly care about the deficit...." Contrary to the GOP talking point- which the mainstream media rarely disputes- Social Security does not contribute a dollar to the deficit. Or a dime Or a penny. Tuesday night, the President did nothing- nothing- to disabuse the nation of the notion there is a connection between the two.

From the press briefing, Bowers concludes also "President Obama strikes generally strong notes in defense of Social Security when it comes to other possible ways to cut the program." That is reassuring, in that the remarks of the President himself would indicate otherwise; or not reassuring, if one suspects that the bloggers were snookered.

Tuesday, the President urged we "find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations." There are two ways to "strengthen" Social Security: a) benefit cuts, which are usually the intent of those using the term "strengthen" in regard to SS; or b) raising additional revenue, such as by increasing the rate or, in what would be a more progressive and likely approach, raising the cap on Social Security donations. That would, however, be a tax and therefore resistant to a "bipartisan solution," given the GOP's opposition to anything which can be labeled a tax increase.

The President cautioned against a solution "putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities...." No, "current retirees" are not at risk; even most Republicans clearly are aware of the political backlash which would ensue if benefits were cut for current retirees, who know how valuable and sound the Social Security system. Younger people, however, have been fed the line that Social Security is at risk, will become insolvent, or that it will not be there for them when they get older. They can be cut, as the President implied.

Furthermore, President Obama ruled out "slashing venefits for future generations." "Slashing benefits" will not be tolerated. Cutting benefits apparently will.

No 'splitting hair' here and no trite "depends upon what the meaning of "is" is. Instead, this is a tiny bit of the famous interview of President Bill Clinton with PBS' Bill Lehrer on January 21, 1998:

JIM LEHRER: You had no sexual relationship with this young woman?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: There is not a sexual relationship. That is accurate.

In fact, that was accurate. There was at that time no sexual relationship; it already had taken place, and ended. President Obama has learned the fine, and complex, art of triangulation from President Clinton. Likely, he has learned also the fine art of very carefully calibrating his language and words, now to obscure his interest in reducing the benefits an individual several years from now will receive from the Social Security system.

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