In every successful struggle there's a time to celebrate a hard-fought victory. When it comes to Social Security, this is not that time.
It's true that, after including the "chained CPI" benefit cut in his latest budget, the president seems to have dropped the idea. And it's true there's no talk of a "Grand Bargain" on the horizon. But it would still be a serious mistake to become complacent about Social Security.
Even now, in the August heat and summer doldrums, there are stirrings which suggest a deal could be on the way. Washington insiders report that meetings are being held to hammer it out. Republicans are now publicly backing the president's proposed cuts.
If you, like most Americans, expect to depend on Social Security, now would be a good time to get worried -- and get active. If you're a Democrat who cares about the political fate of your party, complacency about Social Security would be an even bigger mistake. The president's misguided notions about a Social Security deal may well have cost Democrats the House in 2010.
The Senate could be the next to fall.
But while there are troubling signs on the horizon, there are also very promising ones. We'll start with the bad news.
The president's willing to cut benefits.
Once again the president has wisely shifted his rhetoric from deficit reduction from job creation. Would he still cut Social Security, wounding one of his party's signature achievements and dealing a harsh blow to its electoral chances?
He's certainly been willing to do it before. One of his first executive acts was the creation of a "Deficit Commission" led by two rabid anti-Social Security activists, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Social Security was included in their mandate even though it's forbidden by law from adding to the deficit. And a very senior Cabinet official told this writer and other journalists early in the Obama presidency that the administration intended to push for Social Security cuts.
And remember: These moves were made when Democrats held the White House, the Senate, and Congress.
The president was also planning to announce unilateral cuts to Social Security in his 2011 State of the Union message until, as the Wall Street Journal reported, he was pressured to back down at the last minute. And he continues to push for these cuts in negotiations with the Republicans.
The Republicans are calling for them.
The Republicans shrewdly -- and predictably -- moved to the left of the president with a "Seniors' Bill of Rights" in 2010, after he publicly discussed cuts. His equivocation on Social Security probably helped them win the House. (We reviewed the polling data here.)
They're using the same playbook again this year. (We expected that, but miscalculated the length of time it would take them to outflank him on this issue: It took fifteen minutes.)
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