Where is President Obama Headed On Social Security?

After weeks of hearing that President Obama might use his State of the Union address to begin a campaign to cut Social Security, what the president said was anti-climactic. He did not embrace the ideas outlined by members of his Catfood Commission. He did not announce cuts. And while some may take comfort in their belief that he never intended to announce cuts, both the lead up to the speech and the words he actually spoke leave much to interpretation.

It is possible that the president never intended to cut Social Security, and that the reports were wrong. It's also possible that the reports were based on the Washington tradition of deliberate leaks as trial balloons, just to gauge the reaction. If that's the case, then the reaction among base voters and activists might have played a role in such cuts not being announced. We don't know. We do know that the polling showed strong opposition to cuts, and we do know that House progressives were worried enough to send the administration a very clear message before the speech. And the speech itself also offered some clues as to the political play, if not the intended policy. As he so often does, the president yet again left his intentions open to interpretation. Those that want to believe he would never endorse any cuts or delays in benefits could find in his words support for that belief. Those that remain skeptical also could find in his words reasons to to justify their skepticism.

This is what President Obama said:

To put us on solid ground, we should also find a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.

This might sound good, to some. The Village, of course, loves the idea of bipartisanship, except that the way it actually works is that the administration compromises before negotiations have even begun, Republicans refuse to budge, so the administration compromises even more, we end up getting something akin to what once was a moderate Republican plan, and the Republicans don't give that a single vote anyway.

We must do it without putting at risk current retirees, the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations; and without subjecting Americans' guaranteed retirement income to the whims of the stock market.

Sounds great. But what does it all mean? What does "putting at risk" mean? Is "slashing" benefits different than simply cutting them or delaying them? As he so often does, and as he is tremendously talented at doing, the president used vague language that sounds encouraging but that leaves enough wiggle room for almost anything he does on Social Security to remain consistent.

In a subsequent bloggers' roundtable with David Axelrod, Chris Bowers elicited this response:

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.

So the only thing the administration is explicitly ruling out is privatization. Note that the language wasn't vague or opaque. When the administration has a clear stand to take, it doesn't play language games. And while it seems possible that the bit about not pre-negotiating reflects an awakening that compromising from the start leads to negotiating from a position of weakness, the emphasis on the chimera of bipartisanship suggests more that the administration just doesn't want to admit to what it will put on the table. And we know that the only thing that is explicitly not on the table is privatization.

The administration could have drawn a line in the sand on benefits cuts, but it didn't. Rather than the president saying he wouldn't allow a "slashing" of benefits, he could have said he wouldn't allow any reductions, period. But he didn't. He could have said he won't allow a raising of the retirement age, but he didn't. He could have said that people on fixed incomes never need worry about having to further tighten their belts, because he won't allow any tweaks of COLAs. But he didn't. Any or all of these could have been as clear and concise as was the rejection of privatization, but it wasn't. And anyone who has followed this president and this administration knows that they are very careful with language. Were there lines in the sand, they would have been drawn. And it would have made for great politics. With Paul Ryan offering the rebuttal to the president's speech, the contrast would have been clear. It wouldn't have been appropriate for the president to draw that contrast, but the Democratic officials and operatives who subsequently fanned out onto the airwaves could have: President Obama is the defender of Social Security, and the Republican chosen to respond wants to destroy it. But no such contrast could be drawn because no such contrast is clear.

We don't know what the president has in mind. Opacity rules, yet again. We do know that he didn't announce any cuts to Social Security. We do know that he didn't draw a line in the sand about future cuts. We do know that he didn't endorse any of the ideas proposed by members of his Catfood Commission, but we also know that he didn't reject many of their ideas. We don't know what he had in mind before stories of cuts were leaked, and we don't know if the pushback played a role in his not endorsing cuts. It makes political sense to think that the leaks were trial balloons, and that the response popped them. But we don't know. We do know that we, as bloggers and as activists, must continue to draw our own lines in the sand. No cuts or delays in benefits will be acceptable. This is not open to negotiation.

AlterNet / By Laurence Lewis

Posted at January 29, 2011, 7:31am

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