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Is Obama On The Brink Of Cutting Social Security? The Dangerous Game Over the Debt Ceiling

The administration floated the idea of cutting Social Security, then denied it just as quickly. What's really going on with all this debt ceiling brinksmanship?

On Thursday, a media frenzy followed a report in the Washington Post , citing anonymous sources, that Barack Obama offered to include unspecified cuts to Social Security and Medicare in negotiations with Congressional leaders over raising the debt ceiling and heading off the economic disaster that a default would trigger.

This, according to multiple reports, would represent the administration's plan to “go big” in a deficit reduction deal, a kind of Hail Mary pass as the clock ticks down. Republican leaders and the White House had been wrangling over a package that would reportedly have knocked $2.4 trillion off of the projected deficits over the next 10 years. Now, with the deadline looming and both sides moving further apart, the White House, according to the Post story, is looking at going for a package worth $4 trillion over the next decade.

Progressives responded with appropriate outrage. Moveon released a survey showing that three-fourths of its members would be less likely to donate time or money to Obama's re-election if he messed with the crown jewels of America's social safety net. House Democrats told Talking Points Memo they'd been “caught off guard” by the announcement, and “progressives aligned to warn Obama and Republicans not to go too far, or they'll lack the support to pass the plan through the House.” Judging by his Twitter feed, Salon columnist David Sirota nearly had a stroke.

The White House moved quickly to control the damage in an afternoon presser. "There is no news in the story that purports to be news this morning," said press secretary Jay Carney. "The fact is that the president's position has not changed, at all, since January," he added, referring to Obama's statement during the State of the Union that “we should... find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security... without slashing benefits for future generations.” (Pressed by ABC's Jake Tapper about whether “cutting” benefits was different from “slashing” them, Carney demurred.)

So they floated a trial balloon, a time-honored Washington tradition this White House has always been especially fond of. A senior official whispers anonymously into the ear of a prominent Beltway reporter, the White House denies the story, and that sends the pundits into a frenzied discussion of What It All Means. Such leaks are always done in the service of influencing the public debate, and the question is what the ultimate goal of the administration is with this latest one.

There are three ways of looking at the game. The most cynical is that Obama genuinely wants to make deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare and is laying the groundwork for blaming a move he knows will outrage his base and cause a revolt in the Congressional Democratic caucus on Republican intransigence. There is little evidence in Obama's public statements to support the idea that he has a heartfelt desire to do that -- beyond, perhaps, minor tweaks to shore up their long-term solvency -- but some disheartened progressives are nonetheless convinced that's the case.

Occam's Razor suggests that Obama, surrounded by genuine deficit hawks, is indeed willing to tolerate some cuts in the programs most important to Democrats in order to head off the potentially catastrophic consequences of a default going into the 2012 election season, and thinks that offering some incremental “entitlement reform,” long a top goal of conservatives, is a necessary concession to break the deadlock. The administration may also genuinely believe that making modest adjustments in the programs now would help head off deeper cuts later.

This administration has certainly shown itself to be enthralled by the idea of scoring big, “bipartisan” legislative victories on what the chattering class considers the most pressing issues facing the country, and a Beltway consensus has (unfortunately) gelled around the idea that reducing the deficit in the near term, rather than getting people back to work, is a top priority.

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