As Washington’s budget battles rage on, many progressives seem less frightened by the specter of Republicans slashing spending than by the conviction that the Obama administration will “cave in” to Republican demands. If Obama had a spine, it is suggested, he’d seize on conservative threats to Social Security and Medicare and wreak havoc on GOP approval ratings. Surely the retiree-heavy Republican electoral base would rebel against this kind of fiscal discipline. But alas, Obama is holding his fire, with what will surely be catastrophic results.
In fact, the reality is precisely the reverse. The president knows exactly what he’s doing—and he has no intention of caving.
Notwithstanding their public posture of budgetary fearlessness, conservatives are justifiably worried about the consequences of unilaterally proposing major changes in Social Security and Medicare. The polling on this subject is unambiguous: large and consistent majorities of Americans, and of rank-and-file Republicans, and even of self-identified Tea Party supporters, oppose any big changes in these programs. After all, Newt Gingrich’s Republican Revolution of 1994 first ran aground over proposals to reduce Medicare benefits. George W. Bush’s “partial privatization” scheme for Social Security likewise began his downward trend in popularity just after his re-election. Even if they can’t remember those setbacks, Republican pols certainly recall how they managed to stir up trouble for Obama’s health care plans by claiming they would endanger Medicare.
Now as always, Republicans need bipartisan cover to broach the subject of serious budget cutting. Back in the late 1990s, even as House Republicans were battling to remove Bill Clinton from office, they were begging him to lead on entitlement reform, as Clinton hinted he was interested in doing. And now, a Democratic president they appear to despise far more than Slick Willie holds the same trump card in the budgetary poker game.
Obama continues to keep Republican hopes alive that he will risk infuriating his own base by embracing a deal on entitlement reform.
That is almost certainly why Obama continues to keep Republican hopes alive that he will risk infuriating his own base by embracing a deal on entitlement reform. If they plunge ahead without him in the House, the Republicans will end up painting a bulls-eye on the back of every vulnerable GOP congressperson who votes for a budget resolution that cuts Social Security and Medicare. The Democratic Senate, on the other hand, can be counted on to defeat such a budget. That would then allow the president to propose a “grand bargain” that forces Republicans to defy their own base on tax increases.
Another tactic Obama might use is to insist that any deal on entitlement reform include a cease-fire in the Republican assault on “Obamacare”—which, after all, provided more Medicare savings than any recent legislation enacted by either party. The odds that Republicans will give up on Obamacare bashing are even lower than the odds they will risk the wrath of conservative activists by supporting a tax increase. But so long as the White House keeps open the possibility of a deal including entitlement reform, the conditions he attaches will look more reasonable to the persuadable segment of the electorate than the insistence of Republicans on entitlement cuts the public doesn’t support in the first place. Under the pressure of their own fiscal-crisis rhetoric, Republicans might even begin squabbling amongst themselves over a possible deal, or suffer their own Tea Party rebellion.
It’s understandable that many Democrats would prefer Obama to discard his perpetually unrequited talk of bipartisanship and make the 2012 elections a referendum on public support for unpopular budget cuts. It may eventually come to that. But for now, let the president play his hand. It’s a strong one, if he plays it right.
Ed Kilgore is managing editor of the Democratic Strategist