Everywhere you look, the media narrative is that President Obama is “capitulating” to Republicans by agreeing to cuts in Social Security benefits.
And I have to ask, where is this collective political amnesia coming from?
Obama has made a deliberate and concerted effort to cut Social Security benefits since the time he took office. FDL reported on February 12, 2009 that the White House was meeting behind closed doors to consider ways to cut Social Security benefits, and that the framework they were using was the Diamond-Orszag plan, which was co-authored by OMB Director Peter Orszag when he was at the Brookings Institute.
The birth of the now-ubiquitous “catfood” meme came on February 18, 2009 with this FDL headline:
As I wrote in August of 2010, Peterson’s keynote spot was the worst kept secret in town; I knew about it because I had been on a conference call with about 40 representatives of various DC interest groups, many of whom had received written notice from the White House that Peterson was scheduled to headline the event. But nobody wanted to go on the record for fear of jeopardizing their relationship with the administration in its early days.
After FDL broke the news, Peterson was “disinvited” from the summit. Both he and the White House denied everything, but Robert Kuttner subsequently confirmed in the Washington Post that Peterson had, in fact, been scheduled as the keynote speaker that day.
The administration backed off its immediate plans for reforming Social Security. The New York Times reported that they were “running into opposition from his party’s left” who are “vehement in opposing any reductions in scheduled benefits for future retirees.” But NYT columnist David Brooks reported that shortly after the summit, “four senior members of the administration” called him to say that Obama “is extremely committed to entitlement reform and is plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security.”
Undeterred, the White House began telling journalists off the record that they were interested in “establishing an independent commission (outside the congressional committee structure) to look at creating a specific reform plan.”
In January of 2010, a bill sponsored by committed Social Security slashers Judd Gregg and Kent Conrad which would have created an official commission to make recommendations about the nation’s deficit was defeated by the Senate on a bipartisan vote — 22 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted no.
After the Senate defeat, on February 18, President Obama issued an executive order creating what subsequently became known as the “Catfood Commission” anyway.
Unlike Bill Clinton’s Danforth Commission, which ended in deadlock, Obama set this commission up in such a way that it was stacked with deficit hawks who largely agreed on what needed to be done: 12 of the 18 members were to be appointed by Senate and House leaders in each party, and 6 would be appointed by the President. This virtually guaranteed that Social Security privatization fetishist Paul Ryan would be on the commission, as would Gregg and Conrad.
Among the President’s six appointments:
- Chairman Erskine Bowles, described by Business Week as “corporate America’s friend in the White House.” Bowles had negotiated the deal between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton to create “private social security accounts” where “taxpayers get some choice as to how to invest their contributions.” The deal fell through when the Monica Lewinsky episode jumped into the headlines.
- As Bowles’ Republican Co-Chair, the President appointed loose cannon Alan Simpson, the former rich kid GOP Senator from Wyoming once famously said that those who were complaining that Social Security needed protection were “people who live in gated communities and drive their Lexus to the Perkins restaurant to get the AARP discount.”
- Alice Rivlin was appointed by Obama to be chief wonk of the Catfood Commission, a Brookings Institute fellow who had been funded by Pete Peterson and a strong supporter of raising the retirement age to 70 — resulting in a 20% benefit cut to Social Security recipients.
- David M. Cote, the Republican CEO of defense contractor Honeywell
The composition of the Commission was conveniently stacked with 14 of the 18 members committed deficit hawks looking to start balancing the federal budget on the backs of old people.
And who supplied the staff to the commission? Why, Pete Peterson.
Are we to believe that the President was blissfully ignorant of the agendas of the people he appointed to this commission, created with the goal of bypassing Congressional process?
With the exception of a few public dog and pony shows, the Commission conducted its deliberations in secret. But on June 16 of 2010, Alex Lawson of Social Security Works blew a hole in that secrecy on the front page of FDL when he caught Alan Simpson on live streaming video as he was exiting a meeting of the Catfood Commission. In real time, Alex got Alan Simpson to say what everyone in the room was thinking but wouldn’t say publicly. Simpson told Alex that the commission was “really working on solvency”:
We’re trying to take care of the lesser people in society and do that in a way without getting into all the flash words you love dig up, like cutting Social Security, which is bullshit. We’re not cutting anything, we’re trying to make it solvent.
The Catfood Commission ultimately failed it is mission, due in no small part to the work of people like Alex, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson of Social Security Works who have consistently been out there informing and uniting interest groups and educating the public to the fact that, yes, the White House has an agenda of cutting Social Security benefits.
I don’t know why Obama wants to cut Social Security benefits. I do know that Obama has been honest about it from the start. In January of 2009, even before he took office, he told the Washington Post that he believed Social Security was a broken system and that “entitlement reform” was something he wanted to achieve during his tenure in office:
Obama said that he has made clear to his advisers that some of the difficult choices–particularly in regards to entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare – should be made on his watch. “We’ve kicked this can down the road and now we are at the end of the road,” he said.
Perhaps Obama wants to do what Bill Clinton couldn’t do. It’s clear the oligarch class has decided that this is what must happen, and that in order to be considered a “serious” person, this is what a President must do. Perhaps Obama simply wants to be considered a “serious person” by those in the ruling class.
But it’s clear that he did not arrive at the decision to “reform” Social Security and cut benefits because he is a poor negotiator, or because of Republican arm twisting. It defies all logic and reason to look at his actions over the years and think that the President is now “capitulating” on Social Security.
The President has been very forthcoming about the fact that cutting Social Security benefits is something he wants to do. When he said during the debate that he didn’t differ from Mitt Romney on entitlement reform, he meant it. It’s time for people to remove the rose-colored glasses and stop projecting their own feelings on to the man. It’s time to take him at his word.