Will Obama Abandon Tens of Millions of Seniors to Get a Budget Deal with Right-Wing Republicans?

The next few days may be the most perilous for ordinary Americans in Obama’s presidency, as the White House is looking for a deal with far-right Republicans that takes Obamacare off the budget-cutting table, reopens the federal government and raises its debt ceiling.

As the government shutdown continues, Democrats have seen their approval ratings soar, prompting pollsters to say that the GOP will be punished in the next federal election. But what’s shaping up 13 months from now is less important than what will shape up in the next 13 or so days. That’s because the White House’s openness to revive “grand bargain” talks with GOP radicals over future funding for entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and more tax cuts for the wealthy, can only end badly for the middle- and working-class Americans.

“If we went into serious negotiations, then I think that could be taken in short order,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK and House Appropriations Committee member, said Friday, after negotiating Thursday night with other House GOP leaders at the White House over ending the shutdown and debt stalement.   

The problem that Democrats face is that the agenda of the House’s slightly less-extreme Republicans is not new. It is still so far to the right that a deal could imperil programs that Democrats have built over decades, starting with the cornerstone of the 1930s New Deal, Social Security, and continuing in the 1960s War on Poverty, with Medicare, or health care for seniors. Fully funding retirement security programs is needed more than ever today, as near-retirees owe an average of $102,000 on home loans and $18,000 on  credit cards, according to Social Security Administration statistics.

Polls continuously find that the vast majority of Americans, regardless of political party, do not want entitlements like Social Security or Medicare cut. But these big-ticket items have consistently been in right-wingers’ budget-cutting crosshairs, where they are falsely but deliberately blamed for outsized roles in creating the federal debt—instead of George W. Bush-era tax cuts and a war of choice in Iraq. The hard right, now driving the federal shutdown, has been laboring for years to end America’s social welfare programs. That attitude is part of why the right hates Obamacare, as it is seen as expanding that legacy.    

It appears that the GOP’s price for reopening government and raising the debt limit is for Obama to “seriously consider,” as Cole said, an array of policy options targeting these needed and popular entitlements. This menu would include the unbalanced Simpson-Bowles plan of cutting retirement benefits while lowering federal income tax rates, especially in the top brackets. Or, as Obama has said, possibly changing the inflation formula that calculates Social Security increases, which would hurt the majority of seniors who have little lifetime savings.    

These “grand bargain” proposals are nowhere near the political 50-yard-lines. They are far to the right, just as the shutdown and debt fight are driven by even more extreme right-wingers. Yet mainstream media coverage of would-be dealmakers is filled with revisionist history or worse, historical amnesia. Republicans who a year ago were seen as being out-of-touch—notably 2012 Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan—are today touted as “adults” that the White House can deal with. That’s how The New York Times portrayed Ryan this week, glossing over his slash-and-burn agenda that voters rejected in the 2012 presidential election.

There’s a real danger that the Republican extremists will move from their 5 yard line to their 15 yard line and stop there, bellowing that they have compromised while demanding lasting cuts to safety nets. Obama would then look intransigent if he keeps saying no.

The end game is dicey. In 1995, when the government was shut down by Republicans led by then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, that revolt came after President Bill Clinton did what no Democrat thought that their party would do—support and pass punitive welfare reform. Then and now, some of the same dynamics are at play. Republicans, seeking to sound reasonable, have begun talk of reforming programs that they just want to kill.

“Everyone was being cute,” The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Drew wrote in her 1996 book, Showdown, about the Gingrich shutdown and welfare law. “The Republicans were pretending to be ‘reforming’ a program they were trying to destroy. The President was dodging the most important issue and dealing in word games, while his aides encouraged people to think whatever they wanted to think were his intentions.”   

Then, like now, a Democratic president was willing to meet the GOP partway. Will Obama be the Democratic president who is willing to par back some of the most popular and needed federal programs ever, including Social Security and Medicare? Will he back the Keystone XL pipeline in a grand deal, despite a deepening climate change crisis? 

Americans across the political spectrum should take heed. These are perilous times.

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