BY ALEXANDER COCKBURN
The American political system is nicely balanced so that certain foul deeds – like throwing poor women off the welfare rolls, or cutting old people’s pensions – are handed off to Democrats, who put on a better act, tears streaming down their faces as they protest that they must kill in order to be kind. So when, in January 2009, Obama gave an interview to the Washington Post shortly before he took over the White House, saying that it was high time to take an unsparing look at “entitlements,” the warning shot rang clear loud. Once again, a Democratic president was signaling an intent to sell his most loyal supporters — working people of modest means – down the river, to hack away at basic social protections like Social Security and Medicare.
But in those opening months of 2009, general economic meltdown required rescue of the bankers, passage of the stimulus and other urgent matters. Now, amid specious talk of a recovery, we’re back into deficit bashing and the wolves are circling the campfire where the seniors are warming their hands.
The sensible way to deal with the hefty budget deficit would be to socialize the banks and put their vast pools of capital – underwritten by the U.S. government – to productive use instead of hacking chunks of flesh out of the Greek and Portuguese economies. This is anathema to Obama and the bankers at his elbow, and so the air is now thick with sermons about the need for all Americans to heed the plight of generations as yet unborn and help pay off the deficit. It’s unclear why lower pensions and even worse health care for the children of baby boomers will help anyone, born or unborn, but responsibility to Our Nation’s Future is a big preoccupation of a right-wing New York Times columnist, David Brooks, invited more than once to the White House for tete-a-tetes with the president.
The so-called “crisis” in Social Security is rhetorical fakery. There’s no structural problem with a system set up in the 1930s as a centerpiece of the New Deal, but “reform” of entitlements is a core axiom of neoliberalism, urged on Clinton and now Obama by Wall Street’s men, like Larry Summers. Wall Street wants to get its mitts on retirement funds as an investment pool, to drain to its advantage. More generally, any public “entitlement” to enjoy a life free from the threat of immediate starvation and debilitating disease offends the bankers’ sense of moral propriety. But then, when the axe of “reform” is raised and about to descend, these Democratic presidents suddenly discover that Social Security and Medicare are popular programs and it’s politically wise to defend them.
Take Bill Clinton. By 1998, he’d conjured into life a secret White House team, known as the “Special Issues” group, headed by Summers and Gene Sperling, the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. The task of the Special Issues group was to find an installment of privatization that could reconcile “realistic” Republicans and Democrats, and be sold as still honoring most existing entitlements.
Clinton kept abreast with the work of the secret team. In July 1998, he even went to one of their work sessions as they put the finishing touches to their plan to hand Social Security over to the mutual funds industry. But then, suddenly, all bets were off. He was subpoenaed by a grand jury and a month later admitted a relationship with Monica Lewinsky. As the months sped by and impeachment swelled from a remote specter to a looming reality, Clinton’s polls told him that his only hope was to nourish the widespread popular dislike for the elites intoning Clinton’s death warrant.
In an instant, he spun on the dime and became Social Security’s mighty champion, coining the slogan “Save Social Security First.” He issued a full-throated endorsement of the Social Security system, and Republicans were swiftly moved to insist that they, too, would give priority to Social Security. It was a desperately close-run thing, and it’s fair to say that Social Security was saved by the flirtatious smile cast by the zaftig Monica, then a White House intern, at her commander in chief.
In 2005, George Bush Jr. had his stab at destroying Social Security, announcing it as a major priority for his second term. A fierce campaign organized by the AFL-CIO along with progressive citizen groups crushed the bid and along with it, Bush’s political momentum in the rest of his White House tenure.
On Feb. 7 last, The New York Times sounded the tocsin, with a vast editorial calling for entitlement reform. The newspaper’s controlling clan, the Sulzbergers, their own retirement cushions nicely plumped up by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire keeping the NYT afloat, are keen on it.
The cries for reform come at a juncture when desperation reigns in the Democratic Party, following the debacle in Massachusetts. The way things stand politically, we may not have to redraft Monica, [or find a new one] for extraordinary duties, though she would have less ardent a courtier, since Obama seems to have his libido under firm control. This is just as well, since a Hillary-style swing with a lamp stand from Michelle would probably take his head off.
The game plan, as now advertised, is for the Democrats to allow the Republican ultras to rush into the forest clearing and tether themselves to the bill of Rep. Ryan of Wisconsin to replace Social Security and Medicare with retirement and medical savings accounts and actually make the reps vote on privatizing these programs. The Democrats can duly mount campaigns similar to Clinton’s in late 1998 and the AFL-CIO’s in 2005 to save Social Security.
Last week saw Obama formally signing into law the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, an admittedly non-binding presidential commission on entitlements and the deficit. The air was thick with Obamian self-congratulation about Doing the Right Thing, whatever the political cost. The line from the Democratic strategists was that this is all mere positioning for the fall elections and in due course, the commission will fire off a couple of blanks and then quit the stage of history.
What does the president really think about cutting the social safety net? To ask which is the “real” Obama is to drift toward the illusion of thinking there is one – as opposed to an infinitely mutable organism, endlessly adapting to political circumstance, with an eye eternally cocked to the main chance. Nonetheless, everything Obama has done so far suggests that by philosophical disposition and political instinct, he’s a neoliberal eager to please the elites and can thus be counted on, when the chips are down, to do the wrong thing. After the camel’s nose could well come the unmistakable hump of a bipartisan compromise, eroding basic social protections and delighting Wall Street. The AFL and progressive groups had better get out on the trail, right now.
– Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book “Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils,” available through www.counterpunch.com.