President, Dem lawmakers diverge on Social Security

President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress are moving in different directions on Social Security. 

The president has indicated a willingness to make significant changes to Social Security, while congressional Democrats are wary of his striking a deal with the GOP on the popular entitlement program. 

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Political analysts say the intra-party dispute is due in part to the contrasting electoral strategies of the White House and Capitol Hill Democrats for 2012. 

Obama could win a second term by relying on a massive turnout of minority and young voters and appealing to upscale suburban voters, Democratic pollsters say. 

Congressional Democrats, however, need to woo seniors, blue-collar workers and rural voters if they are to keep control of the Senate and recapture seats in the House.

While Obama sees an advantage in winning the approval of inside-the-Beltway pundits, such as he did by striking an $858 billion tax accord with Republicans last month, Democratic lawmakers in Congress and state legislatures view the impact on the party’s base as potentially disastrous, according to the pollsters. 

The diverging political strategies of Obama and congressional leaders sparked a fight last month over extending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, a battle the president won after Democrats on Capitol Hill backed down and accepted the bipartisan deal. 

Obama’s different political calculus may set off an even bigger fight in the weeks ahead if he suggests reforming Social Security to curb its future costs, something that many liberals fear. 

Senior White House officials have told Senate Democrats that raising the Social Security retirement age and changing the calculation for cost-of-living adjustments are “on the table” but no final decisions have been made, according to Senate sources. 

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

Strategists for congressional Democrats fear this could create permanent Democratic minorities in the House and Senate.

“You may have a calculus that says you can win a presidency based on the upscale suburbs or younger voters, but you cannot take back the House without doing better with seniors and doing better with blue-collar whites, you cannot keep the Senate,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster whose website lists clients such as Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). Both senators are expected to face tough election fights next year.

Lake says that to win reelection, Obama doesn’t need to win rural states such as Montana or some of the rural districts that are necessary for Democrats to recapture the House. 

“You can anchor your victories in California and New York,” Lake said of Obama’s reelection effort.

Lake added that many of the House districts Democrats lost in November “were more rural, more blue-collar and older.” 

Obama raised the concerns of labor unions, liberal groups and some Democratic lawmakers by appointing former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) to his fiscal responsibility commission. Simpson is a longtime advocate of cutting Social Security costs. 

The president fueled those concerns by insisting to the co-chairmen of his fiscal commission that “everything be on the table,” as Democratic co-chairman Erskine Bowles later revealed. 

Since the commission came out with its recommendation to raise the Social Security retirement age to 68 by 2050 and 69 by 2075, Obama has had little to say on the subject. 

Democratic leaders in Congress, however, blasted it.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared earlier this month: “Social Security is a program that works, and it’s going to be — it’s fully funded for the next 40 years. Stop picking on Social Security.”

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) slammed the proposal as “simply unacceptable.”

“It must do what is right for our seniors, who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and Medicare.”

Meanwhile, Stan Greenberg, a pollster who advises congressional Democratic leaders and whose firm has worked with many congressional candidates over the years, echoed Lake’s comments.

Lake, Greenberg and Guy Molyneux of Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm, spoke to reporters Wednesday at a briefing hosted by the Economic Policy Institute. 

The purpose of the briefing was to argue that Obama risks decimating his own party if he pushes cuts to Social Security benefits. 

Some liberals are bracing for how Obama addresses Social Security in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. 

New polling by Lake Research Partners of 1,200 voters nationwide shows that strong majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents strongly oppose cutting Social Security benefits to reduce the federal deficit. 

A November poll by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner of nearly 1,000 voters who cast ballots in the 2008 election found that 72 percent of Democratic voters and 52 percent of swing voters strongly support the statement that “politicians should keep their hands off Social Security and Medicare.”

Democratic pollsters say the suspicions seniors harbor about Obama’s commitment to protecting Social Security hurt Democratic candidates in November. 

The 2010 midterm election was the first time voters rated Republicans as doing a better job than Democrats in dealing with Social Security, the pollsters noted.

That was a major factor in why Democrats lost the senior vote by 21 percentage points, a devastating disadvantage for candidates in swing districts.

 Obama’s deal with GOP leaders on taxes might have helped raised Democrats’ standing with wealthier, more highly educated voters in suburban districts since the November election. But it did not improve their numbers with blue-collar voters, who deserted Democrats last year, according to Greenberg.

 Some Democratic lawmakers say that Obama has paid less and less attention to middle-class voters. 

 “He’s probably listening to his economic team, who seem to hate the middle class and put all their time and effort into trying to satisfy Wall Street,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.). 

“The president is trying to follow the Clinton formula for triangulation,” DeFazio said. “This gives him another opportunity to say that those liberal Democrats don’t want to cut Social Security but it’s one of the tough things we need to do to balance the budget, which is absurd.”

 The tax-cut bill, signed into law by Obama late last year, gave all workers a two percentage point break for one year on their payroll taxes — a tax that funds Social Security.

At the time, DeFazio said the vote represented “the beginning of the end of Social Security.”

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) likened it to a “Trojan horse” designed to kill the Social Security program.