Could Obama really learn something from Reagan?

A stunning, old quote reveals the Gipper understood that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit

By David Sirota

Published April 11, 2013 1:18PM (EDT)

Between 2005 and today, a series of elections took place that fully rejected the Republican economic worldview that says America must cut successful programs like Social Security. Yet, eight years after President Bush first proposed cutting Social Security, we have somehow arrived back where we started - only instead of a Republican president championing Social Security reductions it is a Democratic president.

This bizarre repetition of presidential history was the subject of Rachel Maddow's MSNBC interview last night of President Obama's top political consigliere David Axelrod. The discussion was significant for how Axelrod tried to avoid answering why, when it comes to Social Security, President Obama is now positioning himself to the right of Ronald Reagan. He is doing this by invoking deficits and debt as the reason to propose cutting Social Security, even though that program that has almost nothing to do with the national deficit and debt.

As with so many of the biggest issues of the present moment, Reagan is a particularly important figure in today's debate over Social Security. That's because though he was hardly a great champion of the concept of social insurance, he did use his bully pulpit to remind America of a critical fact that is being ignored by those who want to dismantle Social Security. Watch what he said in 1984:

Yes, that's right, as the Gipper put it, "Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit...(it) has nothing to do with balancing a budget or erasing or growing the deficit."

That sentiment, of course, is as true today as it was in 1984. Yet, what Reagan said is now considered radical -- so radical, in fact, that a Democratic president will not only avoid reiterating Reagan's words, but worse, is now proposing a budget predicated on the idea that Reagan was wrong.

Rightly criticizing the White House's moves, Maddow last night floated the idea that the old politics of triangulation is driving the Obama administration's cynical calculation on Social Security. That punch-the-hippies formula posits Democratic president will look "centrist" - -and therefore strong - by championing an extreme policy that offends liberal voters and draws the ire of the organized left.

If, in fact, that is what is driving the White House right now, the political problem for administration officials is that the tried-and-true calculation probably won't work on Social Security. That's because while a Wall Street funded campaign has created the perception inside the Beltway that cutting Social Security is "centrist," polls show that among the general public, it most certainly is not. Indeed, those polls show that protecting Social Security isn't viewed as a "left" cause, and that the true "centrist" position on Social Security is in support of preserving up the existing program rather than cutting it.

In that sense, Americans still seem to implicitly appreciate the truth of Reagan's 1984 declaration about Social Security - even though Obama and Republicans don't want us to.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

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