Reports: Obama pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicare

The reported social program cuts follow the same template as that which drives the presidency in all realms

Topics: Budget Showdown,

Reports: Obama pushing for cuts to Social Security, MedicarePresident Barack Obama listens during a meeting with advisors in the Oval Office, June 8, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House. (Credit: The White House)

This is at once an extraordinary and completely unsurprising headline:

For months, the standard narrative among progressive commentators was that Republicans were outrageously exploiting the debt ceiling deadline to impose drastic entitlement cuts on a resisting and victimized Democratic President (he’s weak in negotiations!), but The Post article makes clear that the driving force behind these cuts is the President himself, who is pushing for even larger spending cuts than the GOP was ready to accept:

President Obama is pressing congressional leaders to consider a far-reaching debt-reduction plan that would force Democrats to accept major changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican support for fresh tax revenue. . . . As part of his pitch, Obama is proposing significant reductions in Medicare spending and for the first time is offering to tackle the rising cost of Social Security, according to people in both parties with knowledge of the proposal. The move marks a major shift for the White House and could present a direct challenge to Democratic lawmakers who have vowed to protect health and retirement benefits from the assault on government spending.

This morning’s New York Times article similarly makes clear that it is the President who is demanding an even larger “deficit reduction” package than has previously been discussed.  Headlined ”Obama to Push for Wider Deal With G.O.P. on Deficit Cuts,” the article reports that “President Obama has raised his sights and wants to strike a far-reaching agreement on cutting the federal deficit” and that he “wants to move well beyond the $2 trillion in savings sought in earlier negotiations and seek perhaps twice as much over the next decade.”  This is all in pursuit of “an agreement that ma[kes] substantial spending cuts, including in such social programs as Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security — programs that had been off the table.”  The President, as part of the package, is reportedly seeking some elimination of modest tax “loopholes” that benefit wealthy Americans to claim, absurdly, that there is “balanced” sacrifice.



It’s true that these articles rely upon anonymous sources, though multiple such sources close to the negotiations — from both parties — are cited in consensus about what is taking place, and there are numerous other reports entirely consistent with these.  It’s been bleedingly obvious for some time that the bipartisan D.C. political class and the economic factions that own it have been intent on massive cuts to Social Security and Medicare — see George Carlin’s 2007 video explanation below — but the combination of deficit hysteria (repeatedly bolstered by Obama) and the manufactured debt ceiling deadline has, by design, created the perfect pretext to enable this now.  As one “Democratic official” told the Post: “These moments come along at most once a decade. And it would be a real mistake if we let it pass us by.”  Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine is not a GOP-exclusive dynamic.

How many people who voted for Obama in 2008 would have expected a headline like this a short two-and-a-half years later?  Many more than should have.  As Matt Taibbi explains in trumpeting Frank Rich’s superb new New York article detailing Obama’s subservience to Wall Street: 

Throughout 2008, it was hard to shake the feeling that this was a politician whose legacy could still go either way. There were an awful lot of troubling signs on the horizon in Obama’s campaign, not the least of which being the enthusiastic support he was receiving from Wall Street.

Obama in part ran a very slightly economically populist campaign, but the tens of millions pouring into his campaign coffers from the very rich (and specifically from hedge funds) told all of us that we probably shouldn’t expect those promises to come off. For a piece I wrote that summer, I asked people in Washington why Wall Street would be throwing money at a guy who was out there on the stump pledging to reach into their pockets:

“Sadly, the answer to that question increasingly appears to be that Obama is, well, full of shit. . . . These populist pledges sound good, but many business moguls appear to be betting that the tax policies, like Obama himself, are only that: something that sounds good. ‘I think we don’t want to make too much of his promises on taxes,’ says Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts. ‘Not all of these things will happen.’ Noting the overwhelming amount of Wall Street money pouring into Obama’s campaign, even elitist fuckwad David Brooks was recently moved to write, “Once the Republicans are vanquished, I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for that capital-gains tax hike.”

Disgustingly, Brooks turned out to be right, and the narrative of the Obama presidency did end up turning sour, on that front anyway.

When I first began writing about politics in late 2005, the standard liberal blogosphere critique — one I naively believed back then — was that Democrats were capitulating so continuously to the Bush agenda because they “lacked spine” and were inept political strategists: i.e., they found those policies so very offensive but were simply unwilling or unable to resist them.  It became apparent to me that this was little more than a self-soothing conceit: Democrats continuously voted for Bush policies because they were either indifferent to their enactment or actively supported them, and were owned and controlled by the same factions as the GOP. 

Now, Democratic commentators — mostly the President’s most hardened loyalists — continue to invoke this “he’s-weak-and-inept” excuse for Obama, but the evidence is far too abundant to sustain it any longer.  As Paul Krugman — long more clear-eyed than most progressives about Obama — explained this week:

Since Obama keeps talking nonsense about economics, at what point do we stop giving him credit for actually knowing better? Maybe at some point we have to accept that he believes what he’s saying. . . . , here’s an unprofessional speculation: maybe it’s personal. Maybe the president just doesn’t like the kind of people who tell him counterintuitive things, who say that the government is not like a family, that it’s not right for the government to tighten its belt when Americans are tightening theirs, that unemployment is not caused by lack of the right skills. Certainly just about all the people who might have tried to make that argument have left the administration or are leaving soon.

And what’s left, I’m afraid, are the Very Serious People. It looks as if those are the people the president feels comfortable with. And that, of course, is a tragedy.

I think Krugman’s “personal” explanation — that Obama is far more comfortable with “neo-liberal centrists” (i.e., corporatists) than with actual liberals — is basically true (Frank Rich put it this way:  “For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys”).  But it’s also about ideology, conviction, and self-interest: Obama both believes in the corporatist agenda he embraces and assesses it to be in his political interest to be associated with it.  If it means “painful” entitlement cuts for ordinary Americans at a time of massive unemployment, economic anxiety and exploding wealth inequality, so be it.

Krugman understandably describes this dynamic in the context of the debt battle because that’s the area on which he focuses most, but this is the same exact dynamic that drives the Obama presidency in almost every realm.  In the context of foreign policy and civil liberties, the public-private National Security State (the ”Fourth Branch” of Government) is his Wall Street; military and intelligence officials and defense contractors are his Geithner/Summers/Dimon; and endless embrace of the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template of militarism and civil liberties assaults is his cutting of Social Security and Medicare.  This is who Barack Obama is; it’s what drives his presidency in every realm, not just in economic policy.

What’s particularly revealing in the Social Security/Medicare assault is the political calculation.  The President obviously believes that being able to run by having made his own party angry — I cut entitlement programs long cherished by liberals — will increase his appeal to independents and restore his image of trans-partisan conciliator that he so covets.  But how could it possibly be politically advantageous for a Democratic President to lead the way in slashing programs that have long been the crown jewels of his party, defense of which is the central litmus test for whether someone is even a Democrat?  The answer lies in how lacking in credibility is this statement, from The New York Times:

“Depending on what they decide to recommend, they may not have Democrats,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, said in an interview. “I think it is a risky thing for the White House to basically take the bet that we can be presented with something at the last minute and we will go for it.”

There’s nothing ”risky” about that.  Of course enough Democrats will get in line behind Obama’s proposal to pass it once they’re told they must.  Similarly, those progressive commentators who are first and foremost Democratic loyalists — who rose up in angry and effective unison (along with actual progressives) to prevent George Bush from privatizing Social Security in 2005 — will mount no meaningful opposition out of fear of weakening the President’s political prospects.  White House aides will just utter Michele Bachmann enough times like some magical spell and snap more than enough people into fear-induced compliance.  The last thing the White House is worried about — the last thing — is its “base.”

This was the primary lesson from the health care fight.  Obama loyalists who maligned anyone who resisted that bill always misunderstood the point.  It was never about the substantive belief in what became the very weak “public option” provision: at least not primarily.  Instead, it was about political power.

Congressional Democrats began the health care debate by categorically vowing — in writing, by the dozens — never to support any health care bill that did not contain a public option (on the ground that it would be little more than a boon to — an entrenchment of — the private health insurance industry).  But once they all abandoned that pledge when told that doing so was necessary to be good, loyal Democrats, it was clear from that point forward that they could be ignored.  They had no willingness to exercise political power; their partisan loyalty trumped any alleged convictions; their negotiation positions were silly bluffs; and they could always be counted on to snap dutifully into line at the end no matter how much their values were stomped on (and that debate followed the same template as the deficit battle: the White House publicly pretending to advocate for a public option while leading the way in private to ensure it never happened).

Obama knows full well that he can slash Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security — just like he could sign an extension of Bush tax cuts, escalate multiple wars, and embrace the Bush/Cheney Terrorism template recently known in Democratic circles as “shredding the Constitution” — and have most Democrats and progressives continue to support him anyway.  Unconditional support ensures political impotence, and rightly so.  He’s attending to the constituencies that matter: mostly, Wall Street tycoons who funded his 2008 campaign and whom he hopes will fund his re-election bid, and independents whose support is in question.  And he’s doing that both because it’s in his perceived interest and because, to the extent he believes in anything, those are the constituencies with which he feels most comfortable.

* * * * *

The full video of the speech I gave on Obama and civil liberties in Chicago last weekend to the Socialism 2011 conference — including a lively Q-and-A session that followed — is now online here (relatedly, here is the video of the segment I did on Tuesday night on MSNBC‘s The Last Word show about Obama, Libya and war powers).

And here is the above-referenced, three-minute George Carlin video that explains pretty much everything about everything:

Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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