Deficit scolds distraught at Obama entitlement betrayal

The president's decision to withdraw proposed Social Security cuts has professional Beltway centrists seeing red

Published February 25, 2014 6:45PM (EST)

Chuck Todd
Chuck Todd

You may be pleased that the president has (for now) abandoned his Very Serious proposal to cut Social Security benefits in order to Fix the Debt (and perhaps win nebulous concessions from an uncooperative Republican Party). Do you know who's not pleased? Professional deficit scolds, a class that includes much of the supposedly objective American political press. They are dismayed. They are practically weeping into their cups of morning joe. Why, they are asking, can't American politicians simply grow up and cut social insurance programs?

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt excoriates Obama's decision to abandon a politically untenable Social Security cut, and also compares that decision, somehow, to Syria. "Did the president really once believe that the United States could no longer kick the can down the road on entitlement reform?" Hiatt asks. And "if, as [political scientist Adolph Reed Jr.] recently argued in Harper’s Magazine, Obama is 'an unexceptional neoliberal Democrat with an exceptional knack for self-presentation,' why do neoliberal Democrats feel disappointed, too?" Maybe you're disappointed because every Western government fully adopted your worldview decades ago and the result has been a new Gilded Age that you can't blame on reckless Big Government New Deal Democrats? Or maybe it's something else, I dunno.

As Dean Baker points out, Hiatt ignores the fact that Medicare -- the primary driver of "entitlement spending," which is usually yoked to Social Security mainly because people want to use Medicare costs to justify a preexisting desire to cut Social Security -- is already projected to cost much less in the future than it was before Obama came into office, and that Hiatt seems disappointed less in Obama's failure to account for the long-term deficit than he is by Obama's about-face on the desirability of lowering the long-term deficit by the most regressive means possible.

Joining Hiatt in disappointment is National Journal leadership correspondent Ron Fournier, who purports to explain that both parties refuse to admit (though both secretly know) that the debt will spiral out of control in the long-term future (like, 2038) unless we get a Grand Bargain.

One thing that has changed is Obama's politics. With his re-election behind him and mid-term elections looming, Obama can ignore compromise-seeking independent voters and pander to his base. Last week, he dropped from his budget a plan to reduce the cost-of-living adjustment for Social Security recipients. As Brett LoGiurato wrote in Business Insider, Obama felt pressure from the left. "Led by Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), many Democrats now not only oppose the cuts, but also favor an expansion of Social Security benefits."

Ah, yes, Obama is pandering to "his base." Compromise-seeking independent voters, who are definitely not a totally made-up thing that Beltway centrists project their own policy preferences onto, are so much wiser than those "base" Democrats, who, absurdly, think Social Security should be more generous. The polls that consistently show overwhelming bipartisan majorities in favor of maintaining or expanding Social Security benefits are probably all skewed.

MSNBC's Chuck Todd has a brief requiem for the seemingly dead grand bargain in this morning's "First Take." In just one brief paragraph, it manages to hit just about every single trope of Beltway centrist deficit scold writing, from treating an unpopular and unnecessary plan to cut social insurance programs as a universally acknowledged urgent necessity instead of a highly ideological goal, to bemoaning the fact that politicians who support unpopular things are campaigned against for supporting unpopular things.

Why entitlement reform isn’t going to happen for a long, long time

Want to know why achieving entitlement reform -- even on an incremental, bipartisan basis -- is so difficult in American politics? Because the political parties are poised to pounce on ANY changes to Social Security or Medicare. The latest example is this recent story from the FL-13 special congressional election: “NRCC Hits Alex Sink on Social Security for Backing Simpson-Bowles.” From the story: “‘Alex Sink supports a plan that raises the retirement age for Social Security recipients, raises Social Security taxes and cuts Medicare, all while making it harder for Pinellas seniors to keep their doctors that they know and love,’ said Katie Prill, a spokeswoman for the NRCC.” For political parties, it’s too tempting to exploit someone wanting to raise the retirement age, raise taxes, or cut benefits. (Folks, it also explains why politicians like President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner never 100% backed Simpson-Bowles.) But that is the only way to truly achieve bipartisan entitlement reform – something that we don’t believe will occur anytime soon.

I might have phrased the first sentences differently: Want to know why achieving entitlement reform -- even on an incremental, bipartisan basis -- is so difficult in American politics? Because it is deeply unpopular with actual voters who recognize it as a shitty deal for everyone but the rich. (OK, one more minor alteration: Folks, politicians like President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner never 100 percent backed Simpson-Bowles, and in fact neither did the actual Simpson-Bowles commission, because our two political parties have diametrically opposed -- and intractable -- notions about why and how to address the federal deficit, and the committee's leaders squared that circle by embracing a crazy notion of bipartisanship that involves only proposing what each political party least wants to do, thus creating a perfectly unsupportable plan.)

For the professional centrists, the grand bargain will never truly die. At least it appears that, for now, fewer Democrats are listening to them.

By Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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