President Obama's budget is scheduled to be released on March 4, and a critical question remains unanswered. Will he or won't he reprise the "chained CPI" cut to Social Security that he proposed in last year's budget? Nobody on his team is talking. The answer to that question could determine the financial fate of millions of Americans - and the political fate of the president's party.
The Washington Post's Greg Sargent reviewed some of the pushback the president has been getting on this subject. So far, 16 senators have signed a letter asking him to drop the chained CPI this time around. Two progressive groups, the Campaign for America's Future and Social Security Works, have initiated a petition with the same demand.
Sargent also provides an overview of the chained CPI, something we've also done a number of times. To avoid repeating ourselves, we'll leave it at this: it's a benefit cut, and a pretty big one at that.
That raises a lot of questions.
Why would the president of the United States, a Democrat, unilaterally propose cutting the program that has been one of his party's cornerstone achievements? Why would he propose doing so in the name of "fiscal responsibility," when a) Social Security doesn't contribute to the national deficit, and b) any future imbalances can be addressed through more equitable tax measures?
Why would the president propose such cuts when polls show that the public overwhelmingly dislikes them and would prefer an increase instead? And why would he do it in an election year, when this cut would significantly harm his party's chances at the polls?
The president's justification last year went something like this: We really need a "grand bargain" that would end the cycle of Republican government shutdowns (threatened or real) by imposing austerity economics on the American people, and we can't get a grand bargain without Social Security cuts.
We thought that was flawed thinking then, and we still think so now. But whatever you thought of the president's rationale in 2013, it no longer makes sense in 2014. There's no more talk of a grand bargain. The Republicans are on the ropes after last year's disastrous shutdown, and there's little likelihood that they'll try it again anytime soon. What's more, as we reported at the time, it took all of 15 minutes for Republicans to respond to this supposedly conciliatory presidential gesture by calling it "a shocking betrayal of seniors."
Why is this even an open question in 2014? The answer to that question calls for a little bit more mind-reading than we have in our skill set, but a clue may be contained in the answers a group of us received when meeting with a very "senior administration official" back in 2010: they seemed to believe, at least back then, that austerity cuts to social programs were good policy.
The truth is, motives don't matter. The one thing we know for sure is that it is still an open question. First, presidential economic advisor Jason Furman refuse to answer when asked "point-blank" about the cuts a couple of weeks ago. "You're going to have to wait and just see what's in the budget," he said.
Then White House Press Secretary Jay Carney echoed his colleague's refusal in a press conference last Friday.
Of course, the Republicans are threatening to hammer the president if he drops the chained CPI. "If the president backtracks on this modest, sensible, bipartisan reform, it will eliminate any remaining shred of hope that he will deal seriously with America's deficit and debt," an anonymous GOP official told The Hill last week.
Remember, last year at this time Republicans in Congress responded to "this modest, sensible, bipartisan reform" by calling it "a shocking betrayal of seniors." They did the same thing in 2010, when they responded to the President's "bipartisan" ideas about Social Security and Medicare by running on a highly deceptive "seniors' Bill of Rights."
Republicans recaptured the House that year. This year it's the Senate that's up for grabs. Any Democrat who continues to unilaterally propose such "bipartisan" austerity measures eventually comes to resemble Charlie Brown, that eternally optimistic sad sack who believes that this time Lucy won't pull the football away.
Some people who are familiar with White House operations believe that the decision has already been made, and that the budget documents may have already been printed and stored in a warehouse somewhere.
But, like Schrödinger's cat, no action has really been taken until the cartons are opened and the document is read. Until then, citizens have a chance to make their voices heard in the White House. This petition is a good way to do that. (I just completed the form myself; it took 12 seconds.)
There are less than three weeks to go until the President's budget is set to be released. Time is running out for the American public to make its voice heard by saying, both on behalf of Social Security recipients and to avoid a conservative victory in November: Don't do it, Mr. President.
(Disclosure: I am a senior fellow with the Campaign for America's Future, and Social Security Works sponsors my new radio program "The Zero Hour," formerly known as "Take Action News with David Shuster.")