Social Security: Axelrod Explains What Obama Really Meant
So, David Axelrod had a blogger roundtable yesterday and he addressed what Obama really meant in his spech about Social Security. It looks like we're going to play a game of semantics:
Q. Bill Scher with Campaign for America’s Future. As you know, Campaign was pretty pleased with what the President said -- the President had to say about Social Security last night, although noting that the door is still open with some changes to the program.
I was curious, what is the polling telling the White House and telling you as his political advisor how best to approach Social Security? Our polling is showing there’s been a lot of opposition to raising the retirement age, for example. But is your polling telling you anything similar or different in how that will inform the President going forward?
MR. AXELROD: Well, I think all of that is pretty consistent. What informed his thinking on this is that what is true is that in the long term there are issues on the horizon relative to Social Security, as you know, because you’re obviously a student of research. Among younger Americans, there’s a profound suspicion that Social Security isn’t even going to be there. And among older Americans, there’s a great deal of anxiety about tampering with it.
And our goal is to make sure that the program is strong and secure. The President laid out his principles last night, and we’re willing to have a discussion, but those principles are going to inform the discussion.
Q Speaking of those principles -- I’m Chris Bowers with Daily Kos.
MR. AXELROD: How you doing?
Q I’m doing good. President Obama came out in opposition to benefit cuts and also to privatization. Would he still be willing to talk about those as part of a bipartisan solution, or is he more inclined to veto any bipartisan deal that includes either benefit cuts or privatization?
MR. AXELROD: Well, first of all, I think that -- as I said, I think his interest is in seeing the program strengthened, and there are certain things that are not just non-starters for him but I think many, many members of Congress, and that includes privatization, which Congressman Ryan has opposed, for example.
But I don’t think -- I mean, this is a delicate time because I don’t think you want to start pre-negotiating or pre-discussing issues to the point where people say, well, there’s no point in even sitting down and talking about this stuff. So I’m not going to, here, start parsing the President’s words and so on.
I will say this. I don’t think -- there’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward. Just the nature of the issue.
So we’ll see what ensues from here.
I would appear the bipartisanship is what is sought on this. And I would guess that bipartisanship isn't going to be hard to come by.
The White House and a bipartisan group of senators are focusing on restructuring the tax code and entitlement programs such as Social Security, which could have more dramatic impacts on the deficit in the long run but would do little in the short term. White House officials say Republican calls for $100 billion in spending cuts this year would choke off the economic recovery while doing little in the long run to tame the deficit.
"The American people say, don't touch Social Security, don't touch Medicare, don't cut defense. That's 84% of the federal budget," Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D., N.D.). who is retiring when his term ends in 2012, said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "If you can't touch 84% of the federal budget...you're down to 16% of the budget at a time we're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spend."
Conrad doesn't seem to be worrying about "strengthening" social security in that conversation. But I have no doubt that is how they plan to sell it. After all, people are already signing on to the idea that because social security will have a slight shortfall in 2040 or so, we need to cut the program right now. It's one of those Orwellian "war is peace" things: strength through weakness.
If I hadn't seen the administration negotiations of the past two years on such things as tax cuts and stimulus and health care, I might be more sanguine about this one and give the benefit of the doubt about what they mean by principles. But that would be foolish at this point.
[T]he seeds of cautious optimism rest in the Senate, where Conrad is expected to lead the charge along with three others who voted in favor of the Bowles-Simpson proposals: liberal Dick Durbin of Illinois (also the Democratic whip) and conservatives Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Mike Crapo of Idaho.
Conrad has already said he would only support a long-term extension of the nation's debt ceiling -- set to expire March 31 -- if accompanied by a package similar to the $4 trillion in spending cuts the commission proposed.
Signs of a thaw in the political deadlock over the debt were evident in the public reception to the Bowles-Simpson recommendations. Outrage was surprisingly muted over some of the panel's supposedly suicidal proposals -- like raising the retirement age and limiting the mortgage deduction. In other words, this time voters apparently meant it when they told pollsters that the government's massive borrowing was one of their greatest worries.
Other signs of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill include a proposal by Republican Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee and Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri to bring spending down to a historical average of 20.6% of GDP over the next ten years. The plan includes a trigger that gives the House and Senate 45 days to offset any increase in spending.
On the House side, Republican Budget Chair Paul Ryan voted against the debt commission proposals. Nevertheless, he has partnered with former Clinton budget director (and fellow debt commission member) Alice Rivlin on a Medicare savings plan.
Under that plan, seniors who turn 65 in 2021 or later would not enroll in existing Medicare but instead would receive vouchers to purchase healthcare in the private market -- an effort to inject price competition into the system.
The Ryan-Rivlin plan is certain to draw plenty of incoming fire. But the partnering of these two brilliant minds -- one a free-market Republican "young gun," the other a Clinton era veteran and critic of Reaganomics -- on a such a revolutionary reform shows how much the political ground has shifted.
Meanwhile, a tenuous bipartisan consensus is emerging over Social Security reform -- plans that include some mix of means testing for the wealthy, raising the retirement age, bumping the payroll tax and limiting cost of living adjustments. That's a big leap from just five years ago, when George W. Bush's attempt at Social Security reform left him bruised and battered.
As far as I can tell from Axelrod's conversation with the bloggers and everything we've seen and heard from the political establishment, the only real "principle" here is bipartisanship. Obama gets high marks from the Villagers and Democrats when he forges a bipartisan deal with the Republicans --- no matter what the deal is. That he was praised and rewarded for cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans in a time of deficit fever tells you how far the American people have fallen down the rabbit hole. Don't think he doesn't get that.
The debt ceiling is pure kabuki. If the president allows them to use it, whatever "compromises" he makes will be because he wants to. The Republicans have already acknowledged that they must raise it. Here are the two real hostages that the bipartisan budget slashers have taken:
If the new Congress doesn't act, debate over how to control the federal debt will be one issue at the forefront of the 2012 presidential campaign. That may be fine, but MacGuineas worries that pushing action into 2013 means flirting with the possibility of an event that triggers a debt crisis. Even then, she says, "It's not clear the markets don't lose patience with us before 2013."
The "markets", of course, which care deeply about cutting social security even though it doesn't contribute to the deficit, and care nothing for health care costs, which are strangling the nation. Markets aren't very bright, apparently. But still, let's this could all cause a huge crisis and then where would we be?
But the big, important hostage is the election, isn't it? They are threatening that this is going to be the huge issue unless Obama does exactly what they want. Of course, it will be a big issue anyway, and Obama will be accused of hurting seniors anyway, but Democrats and Villagers will be thrilled because he worked in a bipartisan fashion so maybe it will all work out for him. Sadly, I don't think it will work out as well for Democrats who follow him. They will be subject to ads like this all over the country: