President Barack Obama has sent a budget to Congress, which I guess is news because he’s overlooked that particular function of the executive branch until now. However, the news that seems to have grabbed everyone’s attention is his proposal to cut Social Security benefits by recalculating the cost-of-living adjustment formula that is notionally supposed to keep their value in line with inflation. The new metric, the so-called Chained Consumer Price Index, understates inflation, especially for food and medicine. Because those items are of particular interest to senior citizens, this has suspended forks over food trays all over the country. It has also revived the oldest, most anguished question on the so-called American Left: Is Barack Obama really a progressive?
I can tell you this: No one since the New Deal-era Republican Party has waged as assiduous a campaign against Social Security as Barack Obama, and to be waking up to the fact at this late date argues either a powerful lack of attention or an intense state of denial, which pretty much amount to the same thing.
Social Security used to be the third rail of American politics. Al Gore promised to put it in a lock box during his 2000 presidential campaign. George W. Bush got away with luring the country into war on false pretenses and making us take off our shoes at the airport, but his attempt to privatize Social Security was the blunder from which he never recovered. Republicans, though, did learn from this, and they have been silent on the subject ever since.
It was President Obama who revived the question of Social Security. He tried to give this a patina of respectability by creating the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which raised alarms that the Social Security trust fund was about to go bust (it is in fact an actuarial illusion). Obama’s initial response to this was to suspend Social Security tax collection and freeze cost-of-living adjustments for two years. So seniors’ benefits have already been cut by somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, depending on which government price index you’re following, or maybe just the bill in the shopping cart.
Obama introduced a permanent cut via the Chained CPI as part of his negotiations with Republicans in August 2011 to avert a default in the national debt. The Republicans didn’t suggest it, nor did they respond to it; it was entirely the president’s project. Similarly, no one is forcing him now to revive it as part of a budget proposal that Republicans have already pronounced (as expected) dead on arrival. Obama has advertised it as a pre-emptive concession to encourage Republicans to consider the tax increases that the budget also envisages. The GOP hasn’t risen to the bait this time either, though. If the president wants to put Social Security on the chopping block, it’s strictly his affair.
So, why is Obama so gung-ho to go after the most important part of the country’s social safety net? What kind of Democratic president, in the absence of any pressure but that generated by himself, would attack the program that most crucially defines the party’s legacy and identity?
Democrats, I suppose, will have to answer that question for themselves. Watching Obama’s first year in office unfold in 2009 — a doubling-down on the failed war in Afghanistan, a free pass to the Wall Street banksters, the abandonment of the public option in the health care reform bill, and so on — I suggested in these pages, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that he was a Manchurian candidate fashioned by a murky Trilateral Commission to carry out the Republican agenda until the party had recovered sufficiently from the debacle of the Bush years to run an electable figure on its own. Four years later, I have no better explanation.
It’s the Left, though, whose state of denial is most comprehensive and, at this point, most risible. The burning question of the hour for page-turners of Mother Jones and The Nation is, “Is Barack Obama really a progressive?” Or is he merely the happy drone warrior who still runs Guantanamo and checks off his kill lists while the banks continue to foreclose and the middle class recedes into memory?
How old is this debate? I clipped out a page of The New York Times in July 2008 after then-Sen. Obama had just come out in favor of a Bush-backed bill to authorize warrantless wiretapping. The Times was disappointed in Obama, but the readers’ column was more instructive. A couple from Wilton, Conn., declared themselves so disillusioned by Obama that they might not vote at all in the November election. A lady from Tiburon, Calif., wrote that it disheartened her that he could not “find the courage to uphold the vision of the Founding Fathers against an overbearing state.” A gentleman from Manorhaven, N.Y,, observed that “hope springs eternal — but not in 2008.” Laura Stern of New York City signed off, too, noting that Obama was “a roll of the dice, and I’m not a gambler.”
Enough people did roll the dice, not once but twice. We are where we are: four more years. Only, please, let’s can the debate about whether Obama is a failed progressive or only a misguided one. They’re laughing all the way to Manchuria.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].