Economy

American People Fight Obama’s Treacherous Cuts to Social Security and Medicare

The attack on our most basic economic rights may open a new chapter in the post-crisis narrative.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com

In a spin worthy of the Tasmanian Devil, the mainstream media are casting the reaction to Obama’s proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a case of division among progressives.

Actually, there is no division; not among progressives, nor among the American people. The vast majority, left, right and in-between, have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want cuts to either of these vital programs. ACBS News poll conducted last month shows that 80 percent of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, opposed cutting spending on Medicare to reduce the budget deficit, while 79 percent were against cutting Social Security for that reason.

The people don’t want the cuts, and the facts don’t support them. There are certainly no economic excuses: The federal deficit politicans howl about is shrinking, as none other than Goldman Sachs’ chief economist has attested. And even if it wasn’t, Social Security doesn’t affect it – a fact that many Americans have copped onto despite the best efforts of politicians to deceive them. Clearly, in a time of growing economic inequality, there is no justification for taking more money out of the hands of the elderly and the vulnerable.  

Let’s be blunt: The only folks in favor of the cuts are those serving the interests of financiers who seek to privatize retirement accounts on which they can charge fees and those among the wealthy who don’t wish to pay taxes. This group includes a large swath of politicians and media pundits we’ve been hearing from. And yet despite all the smoke and mirrors – the phony budget crisis, discredited deficit hysteria, the rhetoric of “shared sacrifice,” cuts cloaked in wonky language like “chained CPI,” and excuses about the need to play “3-dimensional chess,” the American public has not been fooled. We know that Big Money has bought and paid for Obama’s budget (which, by the way, also rescues the Pentagon from cuts even as it throws seniors overboard). We know that the President is not representing the will of those who elected him. How do we know? Because Obama himself told us.

Back in 2008, Obama, the "Yes we can!" candidate, gave voters his word that he would not use trickery to cut the social insurance programs hard-working Americans rely upon: "John McCain's campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age,” said the would-be president. “Let me be clear: I will not do either."

Obama lied to us. So what are we going to do about it?

Since 2008, something crucial has shifted in the American consciousness. Beltway pundits like the Daily Beast’s Robert Shrum are working overtimeto sell snakeoil defenses of sticking it to poor and middle-class people, but a quick scan of the comment section reveals how few readers are buying it. Memo to Mr. Shrum: We’re at a bit of a different moment than the one back in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan, Tip O’Neill and Alan Greenspan arranged to cut Social Security by gradually raising the retirement age (a move that knocked many seniors onto disability rolls, which conservatives have the nerve to complain are rising). Since the good old days of Reagan, we’ve seen the folly of supply-side economics used to justify such cuts exposed. In fact, Greenspan himself explained the flaw in his economic ideology to Congress in the wake of the 2008 crash. We now know that trickle-down doesn’t work, and that ordinary people have been left high and dry. The need of the people to be protected from economic calamity has never been greater in living memory.

This time around, the worst crisis since the Depression has opened our eyes to how we’ve been robbed –and disenfranchised -- in an increasingly financialized economic system. The Occupy movement expressed the anguish and fury felt by those who were socked by a Wall Street-driven catastrophe and saw their pockets turned inside out through bank fees, illegal foreclosures, job cuts, disappearing pensions, astronomical student debt, and a tax system that favors the wealthy. In that 2011 moment, a sleeping giant of populism awakened. Americans were reminded that we share a belief in a fair shake and a level playing field. We are united in our desire to harness the wild horses of capitalism for the good of all people, not just the very few.

It was no accident that the sleeping giant was roused just after the summer of Bowles-Simpson, when two wealthy men imposed their vision of "shared sacrifice" on a nation held hostage to a deficit debate that obscured the real crisis the country was facing – the terrible unemployment problem that was, and still is, decimating families, holding back economic recovery, and devastating lives.

Those in power have done their best to cow the giant. But the giant is roaring back. Senator Elizabeth Warren blew right past Democratic Party leadership and condemned Obama’s budget in words the 99 percent understood. In an email to her supporters last week, Warren described her brother who survives on the $13,200 a year he gets from Social Security. She talked about how many friends, neighbors and family members we all know in his predicament, and how outraged she felt at the President’s plans:

“That's why I was shocked to hear that the President's newest budget proposal would cut $100 billion in Social Security benefits. Our Social Security system is critical to protecting middle class families, and we cannot allow it to be dismantled inch by inch. The President's policy proposal, known as ‘chained CPI,’ would re-calculate the cost of living for Social Security beneficiaries. That new number won't keep up with inflation on things like food and healthcare -- the basics that we need to live. In short, 'chained CPI' is just a fancy way to say 'cut benefits for seniors, the permanently disabled, and orphans.'"

Them’s fightin’ words. So were those of Senator Bernie Sanders: “People who have voted with the president … are extremely disappointed with the president…(Americans) are saying do not balance the budget on people who have lost their arms and legs defending this country.”

More members of Congress, like New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Iowa’s Tom Harkin and Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse are expressing their outrage. It’s now clear that all Democratic candidates in 2014 or 2016 will have to make it clear where they stand.

There have been protests and rallies in Washington at which groups that typically stand by the President, like the National Organization for Women, have turned harsh words on him. A coalition of progressive groups got together a petition with over 2 million signatures that they delivered to the White House demanding that Obama reconsider the cuts. Labor leaders like Damon Silvers of the AFL-CIO, once an Obama ally, have opened fire.  

But these official responses don’t tell the whole story. For those who pay attention to social media, there has been a brewing sense of anger that has bubbled over in the last week. On Monday, I sent out a question on Twitter asking how people feel about Obama’s budget and within five minutes I was flooded with responses. Here’s a sample:

“Shows the power of the funders overrides the people if they aren't mobilized. And the weakness of petition signing activism” (DavidKaib)

“Nearly suicidal politics, nearly homicidal policy. Just crazy that it's being floated by a Democratic POTUS.” (libbyspencer)

“i think it's a really stupid move on the presidents part” (V1ct0rCR0cc0)

"I'm living in poverty on my soc security. After too many years of low wage jobs. I am Afraid for my kid/grandkids' futures." (zukeepre)

"the fact that benefits from Soc Sec have already been paid for by their recipient and #POTUS is cutting them, is appalling." (sayala8)

"Egregious breach of campaign promise. Covert seizing of assets not belonging to gov't." (juniorpilot)

A look at budget-related trending Twitter topics like #nochainedCPI show a minute-by-minute outpouring of fury that’s going strong nearly a week after Obama’s proposal was released. Tweeter susankhaley summed up the feeling of solidarity expressed by many who are angry not just for themselves, but for their communities and fellow citizens: “I have my mother's back on #SocialSecurity & every other person who worked hard to get the benefits they are entitled to.” Others, like Tweeter prensko, shared a profound sense of injustice: “I did not steal America's surplus and did not start two wars. The rich benefited; but I could lose my home!”

On the social media platform tumblr, several sites have sprung up like this one, which shows Obama supporters holding up placards expressing their opposition to the plan. Another tumblr site depicts citizens holding up letters to the President. “Do not touch S.S.,” writes one, “Quit giving to the rich!” The Occupy Wall Street website posts a forum on Social Security that includes a link to a petition started by economist Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, opposing the cuts.

It’s hard to say what all this will come to. But because the public has been so strong in its support for Medicare and Social Security, the attack on the programs by a Democratic president may have opened up a new chapter in the post-crisis narrative. Many Americans will take Obama’s move as evidence that they cannot trust their elected officials to protect even their most basic economic rights. Would these same politicians protect their bank deposits? What other promises will be broken? When voters become convinced that their votes, their voices and their vision for their country are ignored, and that their trust is dispensible, sometimes they find surprising ways of being heard. This could get interesting.

Lynn Parramore is contributing editor at AlterNet. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of "Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture." She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU, and she serves on the editorial board of Lapham's Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore. 

 

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