In the first 3 years of the Clinton White House, there were 2 memorable budget wars, in 1993 and 1995. The open fights with the Republicans were brutal, highest-of-high stakes white knuckle showdowns where Clinton’s entire Presidency were on the line. Behind the scenes, though, our internal fights inside the White House were almost as intense. One thing I will never forget was a meeting where my old friend Bob Boorstin, one of the earliest staffers to join Clinton’s campaign, was fighting to keep some important line items that would help the poor in place and bluntly told President Clinton “your budget represents your values.”
While those of us fighting for more spending to help low and middle income people lost a few rounds in these internal debates, we won more than we lost, and in both 1993 and 1995 the budgets Clinton presented and the ones he ended up negotiating with Congress were quite progressive. The 1993 budget raised taxes on the wealthy, lowered taxes on the poor through a big expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and increased investment in programs like education, the environment, Head Start, and Student Grants and Loans. In the 1995 budget showdown with the Republicans in Congress, Clinton rejected the advice of people like Mark Penn that he avoid a showdown, and decided to draw a line in the sand to save “Medicare, Medicaid, Education, and the Environment” from cuts that Gingrich wanted to impose, and he decisively won that battle. In all of the budgets that Clinton proposed and negotiated with Congress while President, he for the most part embraced Democratic values.
20 years after Clinton’s first epic budget battle, our current Democratic President is wrestling with what budget to propose to Congress. The House and the Senate have already proposed radically different ideas of what a budget should look like, so obviously what Obama proposes is just one part of a much longer budget debate, but symbolically, as a presentation of his values, it remains a very important moment. The President has been spending the last year and a half talking about how he wants to fight for the middle class, and his budget should reflect those values. This is why it is so deeply troubling, as the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets are now reporting, that Obama is strongly considering putting a Social Security cut into his budget document. By doing this, the President can no longer fall back on what he has been telling progressives and Democrats in Congress, that he doesn’t want to cut Social Security but is willing to trade it for some good things that the Republicans would give up in a budget deal. By embracing- embracing!- Social Security cuts as part of his budget, his statement of values, the President is telling the American public, senior citizens, and progressives that he wants to cut what they overwhelmingly and passionately support.
I don’t agree with Nancy Pelosi’s policy or political premise when she says about chained CPI, “I have to say if we can demonstrate that it doesn't hurt the poor and the very elderly, then let's take a look at it because compared to what? Compared to what? Compared to Republicans saying Medicare should wither on the vine? Social Security has no place in a free society?" But you know, at least Pelosi is saying she is only willing to look at it when compared with terrible alternatives. If Obama includes it in his budget, he is claiming this as a policy idea he supports before he even starts negotiations with the Republicans. This is terrible policy and terrible politics at the same time. In a budget document that has no actual policy impact but that symbolically represents what he stands for and who he wants to fight for, he will alienate senior citizens and the families who worried about taking care of them, he will split his political party down the middle, and- by being the first one to formally propose Social Security- he will hand Republicans a big political weapon to hurt Democrats in 2014.
I understand the President has political reasons he wants to do this. He wants to look like the most reasonable guy in the room, and he wants the Republicans to look like they are the extremists who won’t compromise. He doesn’t want the attacks that will come from the deficit hawk crowd if offers nothing on “entitlement reform”, and he feels like this is a modest cut compared with the budget ax the Republicans are threatening. He feels like he can lessen the impact of the Social Security cuts by adjusting the formula to protect the oldest and poorest recipients.
But, folks, this is rotten public policy, and all those political reasons pale in comparison to the damage he is doing here. With the demise or curtailment of most pensions, the drop in family wealth due to the collapse of the housing sector in 2008, the big unemployment numbers cutting into many families’ life savings, the flattening or decrease of wages for most workers, and the inflation in many essentials among those who are working driving down the ability to save for retirement, this is the absolute last time we should be looking at cutting incomes for retirees.
As to the idea that Obama will keep the most vulnerable low income seniors from harm, I am very appreciative of that fact that he cares about them and is trying to preserve them from cuts. Obama’s compassion for the poorest of the poor is something to be lauded, one of his best values. But I used to do a lot of organizing with moderate income senior citizens, and I know a lot of middle income seniors. I can tell you that even for those a little above the cut-off line but still living mostly on Social Security, they are not living in luxury, they are in fact just making it. When groceries or utilities or out-of-pocket health care expenses spike, it hurts and hurts bad. I have been in the apartments of seniors when utility prices were going on one of their periodic jumps, have seen what they can afford to eat, have felt the cold in their apartments in the winter because they can’t heat their place. I know in my heart, because I have seen the evidence up close and personal, that for a lot of seniors the $500 a year they will have lost from chained CPI a few years from now if this cut goes into effect will result in more seniors dying of hypothermia or malnutrition.
Most Americans, over 80% in polls I have seen, understand that cutting Social Security benefits is a terrible idea, and I believe that if that is what happens people will be angry. But even if the politics were not on our side, this is a moral issue pure and simple. The President should not propose cutting Social Security, and Democrats in Congress should raise hell and oppose him if he does. As Democrats, according to all that rhetoric I kept hearing during the campaign last year, we believe in fighting for the middle class, and this proposal punches the middle class- both older Americans and the families who care for them- in the gut.