The White House has repeatedly expressed a willingness – even an interest–in reducing the deficit through cuts to these programs. In his recent negotiations with Republican House Speaker John Boehner, the President floated cutting benefits to Social Security through a new cost of living index called “chained CPI” that would essentially revise down the government’s estimates of how much seniors need to cover their expenses. The result, of course, would be reduced benefits.Will there be a "Democratic civil war" over Social Security and Medicare, if President Obama pushes proposals that would cut benefits or otherwise endanger those programs? There damned well better be.
Moreover, last night the President was clear in his openness to discussing changes to Medicare. “As I've demonstrated throughout the past several weeks, I am very open to compromise. I agree with Democrats and Republicans that the aging population and the rising cost of health care makes Medicare the biggest contributor to our deficit,” he told the nation, adding vaguely, “I believe we've got to find ways to reform that program without hurting seniors who count on it to survive. And I believe that there’s further unnecessary spending in government that we can eliminate.”
But coming on the heels of a campaign that explicitly litigated the twin issues of tax fairness and protecting benefits for those in need, Obama finds himself with a growing, emboldened liberal wing of his party. And it’s as dead set against balancing the deficit on the backs of the neediest Americans, as House conservatives are to raising taxes.
What every elected Democrat other than President Obama needs to remember is that they have to run for reelection, and he doesn't. Obama doesn't have to worry about Republicans running against him (again) for cutting Medicare and Social Security. He can secure his grand bargain, his legacy, without putting any of his own political skin in the game. Every other Democrat who wants to stay in office isn't in such an enviable position. What's more, they don't have to worry about providing cover for him anymore; he's a lame duck.
Republicans want these cuts, but more than that, they want Democrats to own them. If anyone thinks that a "bipartisan" agreement that results in benefits cuts to those programs won't hold the starring role in Republican campaigns for the next umpteen elections, then they haven't been paying attention. Remember the "$716 billion in Medicare cuts" that dominated the 2010 and 2012 campaigns? That those cuts had absolutely nothing to do with benefits didn't stop them. And it worked in 2010.
Preserving the nation's social insurance promise to its citizens, the common good, is the core of what the Democratic Party has embodied in the modern era. It worked for FDR, for LBJ, and more importantly, for generations of Americans. Congressional Democrats need to protect that legacy, and perhaps even protect President Obama's legacy, even if it's against his own efforts.