Liberals worry Obama would agree to entitlement cuts in second term

Liberal Democrats and their allies are concerned that President Obama has not made more of an effort to talk on the campaign trail about protecting Social Security and Medicare.

Obama has criticized Mitt Romney and Republicans for endorsing the budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which would create a premium support system to compete with Medicare, but that rhetoric is of little comfort to liberals who remember the concessions he floated in last year’s deficit negotiations.

ADVERTISEMENT
Without strong assurances from Obama that he won’t agree to cut Social Security and Medicare, liberals worry they might have to do battle over the issue if the president wins reelection.

“If I were the president, I would come down hard and fast. Social Security is inviolable. I have a bill to boost Social Security. That’s what he should be talking about,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 

The fears of liberals appear to be well-founded, since the president reportedly floated using chained Consumer Price Index (CPI) to calculate Social Security payments and raising the Medicare eligibility age during talks last year with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“The president of the United States is out there campaigning every day. Have you heard him say very clearly to the American people that Social Security has not caused one penny of deficit, that Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus, that Social Security could pay out benefits for the next 22 years and I, Barack Obama, am going to do everything I can to make sure that we do not cut Social Security, but we figure out a way to extend it for 75 years?

“Have you heard him? I haven’t heard him,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats. “It causes me concern, and I’m chairman of the caucus to defend Social Security.”

Some Democrats do not share those concerns, however. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said Wednesday that Social Security cuts are off the table.

“The Republicans are not vulnerable on Social Security; they’re not talking about cutting it,” said Frank.

“It’s been dropped by everybody,” he added about proposals to use chained CPI to calculate benefits.

The CPI takes consumer substitution behavior into account, reflecting the habit of people buying cheaper substitutes when the cost of some staples rise. Using it to calculate benefits would slow the growth of Social Security payments.

Advocates of preserving Social Security are concerned such cuts could remain in the mix during talks to achieve a grand bargain on spending and taxes later this year or in 2013.

“If that is true, they should all be out there saying it,” said Nancy Altman, the founding co-director of Social Security Works, in response to the claim that the proposal to use chained CPI has been discarded.

Frank noted that Obama has criticized the House budget from Ryan, which would overhaul Medicare, raise the eligibility age to 67 and increase the estimated out-of-pocket expenses of seniors.

During a speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., earlier this month, Obama accused Romney of wanting to turn Medicare into a “voucher program.”

“One independent, nonpartisan study found that under a similar plan, seniors would have to pay nearly $6,400 [more] for Medicare than they do today,” he told the audience. “Where are you going to get that from?”

But while the president has been clear he is against creating a premium support system, he has kept relatively quiet on raising the Medicare eligibility age or other cuts for beneficiaries.

“We do have concerns,” said one labor official. “In this grand compromise with Speaker Boehner there were cuts to all these programs. If he is reelected, which is a big ‘if,’ there’s really a possibility that we’re going to have to deal with this again.”

Even if Democrats triumph in their effort to end the Bush-era tax rates for families earning over $250,000, they admit they will need to find additional ways to reduce the deficit.

Paul Van de Water, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, said additional Medicare cuts are likely.

“In short, I do think that’s almost certain,” he said.

They would come on top of more than $570 billion in cuts in spending on Medicare fee-for-service and Medicare Advantage programs included in the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Democrats argue those cuts will not affect beneficiaries.

Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group, said he worries Obama and Democrats will soften their stance on protecting Social Security and Medicare in anticipation of cutting a deficit deal with Republicans.

“I’m a little nervous about how the Democrats are going to campaign. If they campaign as strong opponents of tax cuts of the wealthy and strong defenders of Social Security and Medicare and go after the Ryan budget, they can win the election,” said Hickey. 

“If the Democrats feel like they already made a deal in their head for the lame-duck, if they feel we can’t talk about defending Medicare and Social Security because we’re about to make a compromise on those things, we’re not going to do very well,” he added. 

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), an outspoken progressive, said Democrats need “to be more definitive and stronger” in framing themselves as defenders of Social Security and Medicare.

“If not, we’re always putting out little fires all along the line,” he said in reference to GOP assertions that Democrats cut Medicare in the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) said Obama has done a good job of “taking apart” the Ryan and Romney budgets, but he thinks the president could do more.

“I think the president can be more of an advocate for Social Security and be very specific and elemental about what he means by that,” Pascrell said. “He knows that the entitlements cannot grow with regards to the way they’ve been growing in the past, but he has to ensure the basic benefits for everybody for Medicare.”