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Opinion: Obama's Repeating GOP Mistakes on Entitlements

Friday, July 08, 2011 - 11:38 AM

President Obama speaks at a news conference at the White House June 29, 2011. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

President Obama likes achieving what no others have done before. He excels at defying expectations. And here he goes again, seeking to accomplish what John Boehner, Paul Ryan, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney couldn't: cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

If you're a Democrat and you're applauding right now, then you're not paying enough attention.

There will be severe political repercussions for Democrats if the Obama rhetoric turns into a plan. More critically, there will be severe practical repercussions for those in society who rely on these programs — and that's just about everybody.

It wasn't long ago, when the GOP took this misstep. House Republicans supported Rep. Paul Ryan's proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher system. Viewed as throwing Grandma off a cliff (as this video captured it), the plan was immediately unpopular with all demographics, including the prized senior voter. Yet, like a pack of ideological lemmings, Republicans followed Ryan over that same cliff. One of the only conservatives to disagree was Newt Gingrich, who was then immediately thrown alongside Grandma into the dustbin of history.

The Democratic victory in New York's special election was viewed by many as a model of how to use that Medicare vote to win back close House seats. It seemed that the Tea Party had given the Dems a political gift.

And now, Democrats — and our president — are giving back.

To get Republicans to stay at the table and raise the debt ceiling, President Obama has been goaded into expanding the discussion beyond the threat of an American default into a conversation about entitlement programs. So he offered what Republicans had just been shellacked for suggesting: cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.

Then he upped the ante and did what President Bush was roundly rebuked for attempting in 2005: he added Social Security reform to the mix.

The President's team will argue that they are saving Medicare (which, coincidentally, is what Paul Ryan argued) by reining in costs. There is no question that the cost of health care needs to be tackled. But so soon after the GOP's voucher debacle, will the public see the difference? Or will they see Obama finishing the job the Tea Party began?

Adding Social Security into the mix is doubling down on bad policy. Forget the politics for a moment — that Social Security is an incredibly popular and successful program, and that any "reform" will immediately look like "cuts" — and focus on policy. Social Security does not add to the deficit. It has its own sustainable source of revenue. It currently runs a surplus.

"Fixing" Social Security does not address our current deficit and debt challenges. But it does affect our debate. Conservatives keep repeating that Social Security is in "crisis" (which it isn't), that it drives up our deficit (which it doesn't) and needs to be solved immediately (which isn't true).

However, now that the President of the United States — and the functional head of the Democratic Party — has thrown Social Security into the mix, he has accepted the false framing that conservative cons have been pushing for years. He undercuts the efforts to talk about Social Security in a more reasonable, and separate, conversation.  And he puts his own party on precarious footing.

If you're a Democrat in the House or Senate right now, you can't just duck and cover. Or else before you know it, you'll be railroaded into voting with the president against the interests of your constituents and against crucial social programs.

No, now you have to speak out. You have to say that the debt ceiling deal should be about real debt — not about a deficit of good ideas. It should be about how to keep us out of default, not accepting conservative mantras by default.  And Republicans should be at the table because that's what people do to govern — not because we're letting them eat our lunch.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."

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Comments [1]

Sherman L. Greene from Upper West Side

It's bad enough that the Democrats are passively allowing the Republicans to portray themselves as the party of "fiscal responsibility," which turns the truth on its head. (Does anyone remember how Bush 43 squandered a federal surplus on tax cuts for the rich, two "wars of choice," & a Medicare drug benefit that is basically an enormous federal subsidy for Big Pharma?)

What's far worse -- truly insane -- is that Democrats are buying into the Republican claim that cutting the deficit requires cutting Social Security benefits, when as a matter of objective fact SS does not contribute one iota to the deficit.

The Teabaggers have revolted against their so-called "leaders." How long will it take the latte-liberals to do the same? Or will they, in their obsession with a totally sham "civility," just politely allow the country to go down the tubes?

Jul. 12 2011 04:13 PM

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