Listen to These Senators, Mr. President, and Don’t Cut Social Security

Richard Eskow

Democrats have been pleading with President Obama not to cut Social Security for years. Until now, most of the public pleas have come from Democratic voters. Now they’re coming from Democratic senators.

You can’t blame them. In 2010 polls showed that Democrats blew a 28-point lead in voter confidence on Social Security, ceding this key issue to Republicans by a slight margin in the run-up to the congressional elections. By 2010 President Obama was even less trusted on Social Security than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who had tried to privatize the program a few years earlier.

Sensing weakness on what had traditionally been core Democratic programs, Republicans issued a disingenuous “Seniors Bill of Rights” – and promptly retook the House of Representatives.

Senate Democrats are looking to avoid a replay of that loss in their own chamber. It didn’t help when the president offered the “chained CPI” cut to Social Security in last year’s budget proposal. And it really didn’t help when Republicans took only 15 minutes to respond. The Republican leading the GOP’s House election efforts rushed for the TV cameras and called it “a shocking attack on seniors.”

We called that a “new land speed record” for turning a Democratic “concession” into a winning issue – for Republicans. While the chained-CPI cut was not adopted, it has remained on the record – as a Democratic attempt to cut one of our most popular programs. The president’s next annual budget is expected soon. This is his chance to correct the record, by removing the chained-CPI cut from his proposed budget.

That’s exactly what Senate Dems are urging the president to do. As The Hill reported this weekend. “He should recognize that (the chained-CPI cut) was a mistake,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. “It should not be in his budget at all.”

“I’m not sure why we should be making concessions,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, “when the Republicans show absolutely no willingness to do the same.”

These senators have reason to worry. Recent polling showed deep opposition to Social Security cuts among voters in a number of battleground states, including several Republican strongholds.  More than two-thirds of voters polled opposed cuts to Social Security, and nearly 70 percent indicated they would be less likely to vote for candidates who voted to cut benefits.

Enthusiasm is also a concern, since it drives turnout. Enthusiasm remains weak for both parties, but especially among Democratic voters. Turnout in the Democratic base, especially youth turnout, plunged in 2010 with disastrous results for the party. And young voters, along with voters across most age, demographic, and party lines, oppose cuts to Social Security. Seniors are another crucial voting bloc, especially in off-year elections, and they feel even more strongly about it.

President Obama began to publicly entertain the concept of Social Security and Medicare cuts in early 2010. That’s when he appointed two staunch advocates for cutting those programs, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, to co-chair his presidential “deficit commission.” The 2010 electoral blowout came a few short months later. And when the “chained CPI” cuts were proposed in his 2013 budget, some saw it as the culmination of a years-long process. Others saw it as a preemptive, unilateral concession to his opponents.

A number of Senate Democrats immediately saw danger. That’s why three red-state senators up for reelection, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mark Pryor of Arkansas, broke with the president over the chained-CPI cut last year. (Begich has introduced a bill to increase Social Security benefits, as have senators Harkin and Sanders.)

Even the traditionally conservative Veterans of Foreign Wars came against the chained-CPI cut, when it first began to be discussed seriously in 2012.

The president’s next proposed budget is expected in a month or so. If he once again includes the chained-CPI cut to Social Security, it looks as if nobody will be happy — nobody, that is, except Republicans running for Congress.

Mr. President, please listen to these senators and drop the chained-CPI cut from your upcoming budget. It’s the smart thing to do politically. More importantly, it’s the right policy decision.

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