Dem déjà vu: Obama triangulates on debt

President Obama’s stunning move to consider changes to Social Security as part of a debt deal is a politically risky gamble that puts him at odds with Democratic leaders in Congress.

The move harkened back to President Clinton’s decision in 1995 to work with a new Republican Congress on welfare reform, a decision that won him support from independents but infuriated allies on the left. 

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As recently as March, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on MSNBC, “Leave Social Security alone.

“Two decades from now, I’m willing to take a look at it. But I’m not willing to take a look at it right now,” said Reid, who will have to convince Democrats in the Senate to support whatever deal Obama works out with members of both parties. 

The president’s left flank, in a constant state of distrust and anger toward the Obama White House, reacted in shock Thursday morning to reports that the president was putting Social Security on the table in the debt talks. 

Liberal House members demanded that it be removed from the negotiating table, while House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) repeated Thursday that Social Security reforms should only be used to shore up the popular program, not to reduce the U.S. deficit. 

The White House sought to push back against the reports on Thursday, with White House press secretary Jay Carney stating: “There is no new news here.” 

But stories about the deal, and Obama’s own statements this week that both parties needed to accept political pain and seize a “unique opportunity” with the debt-ceiling negotiations, had already created the impression that the White House was willing to go big.

The White House on Thursday would not put parameters on the size of a deficit-reduction package said to be in the range of $4 trillion, but embraced the idea of going for a grand deal. 

“Bigness is our target,” Carney said at his daily briefing following Obama’s own remarks on a meeting with congressional leaders at the White House. “Comprehensiveness and balance are our targets.”

Carney said he didn’t want to put a figure on the deal because “we don’t have a specific dollar target.” 

The push for a $4 trillion deficit-reduction package adds to the pressure on Republicans to consider tax revenues, and sends the signal Obama is willing to take on his party’s sacred cows. 

If Obama does embrace Social Security reform, it is an arguably riskier move than Clinton’s decision to tackle welfare reform, a program that was much less popular with voters than Social Security, a Democratic strategist noted. 

Clinton also promised to reform the program for the poor as a candidate in 1992, meaning his decision to sign a reform bill, after vetoing two previous versions, was something his allies on the left saw coming. 

That’s not the case with Obama, who during the 2008 campaign pledged to protect Social Security “today, tomorrow and forever,” and blasted Republican opponent Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), whom Obama accused of wanting to privatize the program. 

Several Democrats have embraced calls for Social Security reform, leaving one Democratic strategist to conclude that Obama can move forward with some confidence. 

“The only risk is a wholesale Democratic uprising in Congress, but that risk is slight — there are plenty of Democrats who agree something needs to be done on Social Security, too,” the strategist said.

But those Democrats, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), think any savings from reforming Social Security should be funneled back to shoring up the program. 

Carney on Thursday said Obama in his State of the Union address said he wanted to work with both parties to strengthen Social Security in a “balanced way that preserves the promise of the program and doesn’t slash benefits.”

If Obama succeeds in getting a big deal that cuts trillions from annual deficits and meets approval from credit rating agencies and Wall Street, he might just earn his greatest reward yet — reelection.

He might also be able to tell political allies that he saved them from what they’d see as a worse fate.

“I suspect President Obama recognizes the political risk with his base, but I think he is actually trying to set things up so that he can say, ‘I saved you from those even worse [Rep. Paul] Ryan [R-Wis.], et al, Republican cuts’ to Social Security and other programs,” said political scientist Larry Berman, a professor at the University of California-Davis.

“He can take credit for the sun rising in the morning and blame the Tea Party darlings for allowing it to set in the evening. It’s high-risk for both sides.”


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