Tuesday, September 13, 2011

For Obama to be seen as a defender of Social Security, he probably has to, you know, defend Social Security

I mentioned the other day that Mark Shields in last Friday's appearance on the PBS Newshour talked like he was oblivious to the fact that President Obama in the debt ceiling negotiations this year proposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Or to the fact that Obama in his Thursday job speech against suggested cuts to Medicare. Or that Obama's push to get even more savings from the "Super Congress" than is already mandated will almost certainly involve Obama again proposing large cuts to "entitlements," i.e., Social Security and Medicare.

Now I'm starting to think it's a clumsy talking point being promoted by the Democratic Party, after seeing Ed Kilgore's Why the Perry-Romney Slugfest Plays Right Into Obama’s Hands The New Republic 09/12/2011. He argues that Perry's hardline on cutting Social Security will help Obama with his preferred re-election framing:

... there is a more subtle but possibly even more significant additional consequence of Republicans arguing over whether to demolish or merely slash Social Security and Medicare [that how it affects the Republican primaries]: It will materially aid Barack Obama's high-stakes effort to make the 2012 presidential election a choice between two very different visions of American government, rather than a referendum on his administration and its handling of the economy. [my emphasis]
Now Kilgore does allude to Obama's own electoral problems on Social Security and Medicare:

So long as the president does not pull the trigger on a deficit reduction deal with congressional Republicans on Social Security and Medicare that could blur these differences, the Romney-Perry battle could crucially change the nature of the general election. And the invisible primary’s focus on Social Security and Medicare is likely to become even more intense tonight, as the Republican candidates hold another debate in senior-rich Florida. Every moment they spend sparring over the New Deal and Great Society is a boon to Barack Obama. Even if the incumbent cannot win a referendum on his own presidency, he can win a competition between the ghost of Barry Goldwater and the ghosts of FDR and LBJ. [my emphasis]
This sounds like major wishful thinking to me. Obama can only make Social Security and Medicare strong points in his favor if he can really present a sharp contrast between himself and the Republicans on the issue. Unless he suddenly morphs into a New Deal Democrat he's never been - and morphs really soon - he's not going to be able to make a credible case as a defender of those two major programs he himself has proposed to cut.

Today's Republicans have no problem at all with the most screaming hypocrisy in their campaigning. They campaigned in 2010 on Medicare cuts that Obama hadn't proposed making, and it was a successful issue for them. To get there, they misrepresented the projected Medicare savings under the Affordable Care Act as cuts.

In 2012, they will be able to accuse Obama - this time truthfully! - with proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Most voters, hell, most reporters, aren't going to parse their claims closely enough to have a good sense of which set of cuts will be worse. As long as the Republicans can blur the issue of whether they or Obama is proposing more cuts to Social Security and Medicare, that will prevent Obama's campaign from making it a decisive issue in their favor.

This is bewildering. If Obama is counting on Social Security and Medicare to be decisive issues to offset the drag on his campaign of depression conditions in unemployment, he can only make that work by becoming a hardline defender of Social Security and Medicare. He's not going to do that by continuing to fetishize the deficit and blathering about "strengthening for the future" Social Security and/or Medicare.

As Stephen Walt reminds us in A one-term president? Foreign Policy 09/06/2011:

... there's a lot of solid political science research showing that incumbent presidents have a very tough time when the economy is in the doldrums, and it's hard for me to see how Obama can get things moving again, especially when the GOP leadership has every incentive to thwart his efforts, even if it means keeping Americans out of work for another year or so.
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"It is the logic of our times
No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."

-- Cecil Day-Lewis from Where Are The War Poets?


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