Oh, here we go again. Obama just can’t rest without his Grand Bargain. Why are Democrats so fricking gullible?
“Meet the new prez, same as the old prez.”
That bastardization of an old lyric by The Who promptly popped into my head upon learning this week that the White House is again floating the “chained CPI” as a means to whittle down its benefits obligations, through Social Security as well as other programs. Little more than two weeks earlier, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who had been working closely with the White House on its fiscal-2016 budget, said President Obama had assured him that the budget would not contain the controversial change, which would apply a stringier formula to the cost-of-living adjustments Washington makes every year.
Yet here’s what White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Tuesday: “We’re certainly open to that conversation with Republicans if they want to have a genuine conversation about strengthening Social Security. But frankly, we’ve not gotten a lot of serious willingness on the part of Republicans to engage in that conversation.”
Maybe not—and in any case, the chained CPI is mentioned nowhere in the budget that the White House submitted to Congress this week. But the fact that Obama told Sanders one thing about this very sensitive matter, which could greatly reduced benefits for everyone from Social Security recipients to military and civil service retirees to food stamp recipients—some 80 million people, all told—and then apparently put it back on the table, illustrates an important point about presidential budgets: they are bargaining chips, not blueprints.
The budget is the only matter before Congress that lawmakers—and the president—really have to act on every year, even if they do so in a chaotic and piecemeal fashion. But the numbers and the principles behind the budget, once they hit the hard reality of closed-door conferences where decisions finally get hammered out, are malleable. Anything goes.
Obama’s budget, like every president’s, tells us what he would like us to think he wants—and no more. This year, his party’s progressive wing of his party is applauding him for producing a budget that, the White House says “lays out a strategy to strengthen our middle class.”
The storyline here is that, with no more elections to fight, Obama is liberated from the need to pacify the deficit hawks and can now fight for the progressive vision he always held. The proof is that the chained CPI isn’t in the budget (oops), and that it calls for rescuing the trust fund for Disability Insurance by shifting funds from Social Security’s Old Age and Survivors Insurance fund, rather than attacking benefits, as congressional Republicans would prefer. In fact, Obama makes no proposals to “reform” Social Security at all. Obama is, at last, “un-chained.”
Not exactly. “It’s a mixed bag,” Josh Bivens, research and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, says of the president’s budget. “The irony is that the elements that are the most bold and progressive are the ones with the dimmest chance of passing, while the weakest stuff is where there could be some negotiation with the GOP.”