In setting up his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, Barack Obama is again playing coy in public, but his intentions are widely understood among Washington insiders. The president intends to offer Social Security as a sacrificial lamb to entice conservative deficit hawks into a grand bipartisan compromise in which Democrats agree to cut Social Security benefits for future retirees while Republicans accede to significant tax increases to reduce government red ink.
…”The president has stacked the deck to encourage this strategy. The eighteen-member commission is top-heavy with fiscal conservatives and hostile right-wingers who yearn to dismantle the retirement program. The Republican co-chair, former Senator Alan Simpson, is especially nasty; he likes to get laughs by ridiculing wheezy old folks. Democratic co-chair Erskine Bowles and staff director Bruce Reed secretly negotiated a partial privatization of Social Security with Newt Gingrich back when they served in the Clinton White House, but the deal blew up with Clinton’s sex scandal. Monica Lewinsky saved the system.
What’s extraordinary about this assault on Social Security is that a Democratic president is leading it. Obama is arm in arm with GOP conservatives like Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, who for decades has demonized Social Security as a grave threat to the Republic and has spread some $12 million among economists, think tanks, foundations and assorted front groups to sell his case. If Obama pulls the deal off, this will be his version of “Nixon goes to China”—a leader proving his manhood by going against his party’s convictions. Even if he fails, the president will get some protective cover on the deficit issue. After all, he is targeting Big Government’s most beloved and trusted program—the New Deal’s most prominent pillar.
Obama’s initiative rests on two falsehoods spread by Peterson’s propaganda—the notion that Social Security somehow contributes to the swollen federal deficits and that cutting benefits will address this problem. Obama and his advisers do not say this in so many words, but their rhetoric implies that Social Security is a big source of the deficit problem. Major media promote the same falsehoods. Here is what the media don’t tell you: Social Security has accumulated a massive surplus—$2.5 trillion now, rising to $4.3 trillion by 2023. This vast wealth was collected over many years from workers under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) to pay in advance for baby boom retirements. The money will cover all benefits until the 2040s—unless Congress double-crosses workers by changing the rules. This nest egg does not belong to the government; it belongs to the people who paid for it. FICA is not a tax but involuntary savings.
He warns us to fight. I doubt we will fight over this any more than people are fighting to keep this administration from privatizing education. It is being done right before our eyes, yet even at Democratic forums there is no outrage, just denial.
Citizens can win this fight if they mobilize smartly. We can do this by arousing public alarm right now, while members of Congress face a treacherous election and before Obama can work out his deal. Some liberal groups are discussing a “take the pledge” campaign that demands senators and representatives sign commitments to keep Hands Off Social Security Benefits. If politicians refuse to sign, put them on the target list for November. Barack Obama is standing on the third rail of politics—let’s give him a warning jolt.