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Staying Vigilant On Social Security

photo: Fabricator of Useless via Flickr

We should all thank the President for refusing to include Social Security cuts in his 2012 budget. But we should not take the President’s decision for granted. Apparently, the White House was prepared to include specific cuts in Social Security benefits in the 2012 budget just to bring Republicans to the table, but a groundswell of progressive opposition helped stop it in its tracks, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

The lesson is clear: What we are doing is working. But we are still facing a real threat to Social Security, and a White House whose idea of negotiating is conceding in advance to Republican demands. We must temper our current praise for the president with vigilance for the future. Cuts are not yet dead; we need to keep up the pressure.

While it may not have been the leading cause, progressive pressure certainly played a role in convincing the White House not to endorse benefit cuts. Administration officials quoted in the Wall Street Journal article said that the White House backed down because it was not sure that cuts would bring Republicans to the table, but they don’t say what led them to believe that. The biggest explicit response the White House got to the rumored benefit cuts was from the progressive, labor, minority and women’s groups that make up the Strengthen Social Security Campaign. Republicans’ willingness to play ball was unclear, but progressive outrage was anything but. From the Journal article:

The decision to hold off was made as the White House came under pressure from Democrats and liberal interest groups who oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits…

In early January, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka met with Mr. Obama and argued that Social Security did not need immediate action. On Jan. 20, the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote Mr. Obama to urge him to resist efforts to cut benefits. And a large coalition of unions, women’s organizations and other liberal groups called Strengthen Social Security lobbied White House economic aides and organized supporters to send a half million emails and letters to the White House.

More importantly, just because they came to their senses this time, doesn’t mean the White House has rethought its naïve negotiating strategy. If the Administration thinks Republicans are ready to cut a deal, Social Security will still be on the table. Here’s the key quote:

Officials weighed suggesting that Congress raise the ceiling on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax and allow benefits to rise more slowly than under current law, according to three people familiar with the deliberations. The hope was to engage Republicans in talks.

But aides decided against putting forward the ideas, sure to be unpopular, without a clear signal from Republicans that they were ready to talk. As a result, the budget President Barack Obama will release Monday won’t include any specific proposals to alter Social Security.

The question is: Why do they think the Republicans will ever be “ready to talk”? Even if such concessions could bring Republicans to the table, what would be a worthy exchange for Social Security cuts? Why should we have the debate on their terms, when we have historically had the upper hand on the issue? Conceding Social Security cuts would be understandable if Republicans had backed the President into a political corner, and he had no choice in the matter. But the White House wanted to offer the Republicans cuts unprompted, on the assumption that it would be received as a gesture of good faith. Once again, the President’s advisers failed Negotiating 101: Never be the first to tip your hand. If you have something you want, start with a high-ball offer and make them work you down to the optimal deal.

Instead, the Administration seems intent on negotiating with itself before talks even start. It didn’t work with the stimulus, it didn’t work on health care, and it didn’t work on the Bush tax cuts. It certainly won’t work now for Social Security.

For the first time in history, the public trusts Republicans more than Democrats to deal with Social Security and it’s not because Americans have started favoring benefit cuts. If the President doesn’t start with a strong hand on Social Security, the Republicans will waste no time hanging it around his neck. Having stolen the high ground from Democrats on Medicare during the health care debate, they are no doubt salivating at the prospect of adding Social Security to their political repertoire.

That said, it is unlikely that the White House will suddenly wake up to the politics of Social Security and adopt smart negotiating tactics.

But for lack of an epiphany on the part of the Administration, we must settle for leveraging our sheer power as a movement. The President needs to know that we will continue to fight efforts to cut the program tooth and nail, and give him all the political cover he needs if he joins us in opposing cuts.

For now though, let’s thank the President for doing the right thing–whatever the reason. He can thank us later on.

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Daniel Marans

Daniel Marans