Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Working The Room

If you believe that, the old saying goes, I'll sell you beachfront property in Arizona. Or perhaps a snowplow in Arizona.

One of the best proposals in the budget unveiled by President Obama on Monday was one he did not make. There was no recommendation to change the index to determine (and lower) Social Security benefits, nor for gradually allowing the eligibility age to increase, nor for means-testing, or any other scheme to undermine the Social Security program. Instead, the President stated (transcript, in PDF, here)

In addition, I believe that we need to act now to secure and strengthen Social Security for future generations. Social Security is a solemn commitment to America’s seniors that we must preserve. That is why I have laid out my principles for reform and look forward to working with the Congress on ensuring Social Security’s compact for future generations.

Advocates of Social Security were uniformly pleased that no de facto cut in America's insurance program for the elderly and disabled was recommended. Reporting on a conference call liberals participated in Monday evening, The Huffington Post's Sam Stein remarked

Asked about the absence of those specific entitlement reforms during a conference call Monday evening, White House senior adviser David Plouffe appeared to even further confirm Obama's opposition to drastic alterations.

"[A]s the President said in his State of the Union, he views Social Security primarily as an issue about shoring it up for the long term as opposed to a deficit issue," Plouffe said. "And we talked a lot about this as far back as the campaign, but are very clear that if there are proposals out there that are acceptable, that don't reduce benefits, don't slash benefits, that don't affect current retirees, the President is open to proposals that would shore the system up in the long term."

Plouffe's inclusion of the word "reduce" alongside the pledge not to "slash" may have been an innocent rhetorical addition to a common administration talking point -- one used several weeks ago during the State of the Union address. But for advocates working to make current benefits sacrosanct and fretting that the White House had left the door open to either cost of living adjustments or other benefit "tweaks," it was noteworthy.

"Until now, Sen. Harry Reid was the top Democratic leader on the record saying that cuts to Social Security benefits were off the table in any form -- big or small, slash or tweak," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "If Mr. Plouffe's words are true -- that the White House opposes all reductions in benefits for current beneficiaries and future ones alike -- it's huge news. Such a position is overwhelmingly popular with Democratic, Independent, and Republican voters alike, and is the kind of boldness Democrats will need to show to win big in 2012."

Rest assured, Sam, Plouffe's inclusion of the word "reduce" alongside the pledge not to "slash" was not an innocent rhetorical addition to a common administration talking point. Probably, it wasn't innocent at all, but part of a shell game. You really were supposed to take note of the phrase "don't reduce benefits" and neglect to notice "that don't affect current retirees."

Take a look at all proposals- or rather, ideas that are floated in the media- to "reduce Social Security costs," as the euphemistic phrase has it. Whether from Simpson & Bowles, from their commission, from Republicans, or from Administration officials, the recommendations, directly or indirectly, exclude current recipients. That's unsurprising, given that the elderly have been benefiting from the program- and vote in disproportionate numbers. Young people are more vulnerable to the misinformation and disinformation from those who would prove to the mainstream media their Seriousness (with a capital "S") by asking for "sacrifice" by future recipients.

It is not healthy for a politician to admit to "slashing" or even "cutting" a program as popular as Social Security. Assurances from the White House and its Republican co-conspirators that they won't "reduce benefits" or "slash benefits" is of little import when there will be no admission that any change is a "cut" or "decrease."

Stein, Green, and others are too involved in the issue not to recognize the language of those who wish to undermine Social Security: in Plouffe's words, "shore the system up in the long term"; in Obama's words, "secure and strengthen Social Security for future generations;" in the words of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), "to maintain the program’s significant role as a part of the retirement security safety net." If the President truly were committed to "America's compact for future generations," he might have noted that the system is relatively healthy, and far more so than the general budget. Or that politicians have been borrowing from it for years in order to finance tax cuts for millionaires. Or that Social Security adds not one red (or blue) cent to the deficit.

But he hasn't done that, and won't. He doesn't need to- not when Stein, Green, and so many other liberals (especially Democratic officeholders) want so-o (no typo) to believe he is that ol' community organizer and left-wing Senator whom conservatives describe. Instead, the President is determined to embrace and propagate the false narrative on Social Security as on other issues. And if the activists who understand the program refuse to blow the whistle, President Obama will continue to use them as fodder.

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