A Necessary Reminder

The recent budget sweepstakes in Washington, D.C., in which at least five Beltway factions have proposed their fiscal plans for the nation, have drawn much attention. President Obama’s budget has drawn many headlines for putting Social Security on the table, resulting in morbid political comedy akin to a Mack Sennet film.

Democrats are mortified, and Republicans are so confused by the president’s maneuver that they cannot seem to figure out how to respond.

But that’s the thing: It’s a political maneuver.

Political cartoonist Bob Englehart explains:

Bob Englehart, "Obama's Budget"President Barack Obama is supposed to be showing his willingness to compromise with the GOP on the budget by going after some of our most vulnerable citizens, people on Social Security and Medicaid. The funny part is that the Republicans have wanted this for years, but since Obama is offering it, they say it’s not enough.

In the meantime, the liberals are freaking out that Obama has turned against the very ideals that the liberals found so compelling in the last election. Look, a presidential budget is a political tool and that’s all. It won’t be enacted. It’s designed to help moderate Senate Democrats win re-election next year.

Meanwhile, everybody’s pissed, the conservatives because there’s nothing Obama could ever do to assuage their rage. The liberals are in a snit because any proposed cut to any social program, no matter how transparently a Trojan horse, sets their hair on fire.

You could say he’s trying to out-GOP the GOP for effect. He has an eye on the 2014 elections. He needs a Democratically controlled House and Senate if he hopes to get more done, but that will be almost impossible with the gerrymandering and election stealing going on in the red states.

There are, of course, various ways to interpret the responses.

The Word of the Day, for Republicans, is post-policy. That is, Republican politics are not about policy anymore. Rather, it would seem they’re playing for a Great Cosmic Scoreboard; the only thing that matters are political majority and minority numbers. The defining rule of this post-policy method is, “Say whatever you think will help Republicans get elected; don’t say anything that might hurt conservative electoral chances.” It isn’t actually about policy, it’s about getting elected.

And, yes, one can reasonably suggest this is a core problem with American politics across the board, but the GOP’s behavior offers sharp relief illustrating the difference between the parties.

Meanwhile, once we cut through all the hyperbole and panic—that is, once we move deeper than the most superficial aspects of electoral politics—there are real and substantive issues to address. Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, for instance, attempts a more sober look at the Social Security question, and in the end liking an idea ought not be a prerequisite to taking it seriously.

In the face of the Obama reforms, the instant rhetoric and reactions were purple—among many, but not all, Democratic officials and across the liberal blogosphere. But what’s the reality, not the abstract jeremiads about a sacrosanct safety net, but the specific dollars-and-cents impacts of the proposals? The president didn’t ask for any fundamental changes in either Social Security or Medicare, which the House Republican budget would voucherize.

DontPanic-400x300Obama would shift the annual cost of living increases for Social Security to a new formula with the unfortunate name “chained CPI.” But the consequences for benefits are not draconian, or even substantial—and as I’ve argued before, the formula has been altered in the past. It’s not sacrosanct, a matter of basic principle, even if the program is. Chained CPI would initially yield about $2 less a month in the average Social Security check. And as its effects multiplied, in 20 years, the difference would be $126—approximately $2,100 instead of $2,200 a month.

Beyond that, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Bob Greenstein, one of the landmark defenders of the safety net and a passionate advocate but a cooler head, pointed out that Obama was offering essential offsets to chained CPI: “[His] budget includes a series of adjustments and protections for the very old and for people with low incomes… It should prevent an increase in the overall poverty rates among the very old.”

There will be much debate over the numbers in coming days, but such sticky details won’t be attractive to news outlets or their audiences unless they are dressed up with the bells and whistles of political apocalypse.

And when you hear those horns of Jericho blaring from your cable news or talk radio, the important thing is to remember that cooler heads previal.

Don’t panic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s