© Josh Sager – April 2013
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected on a progressive platform promising “Change” from the right wing politics of the previous eight years. When he came into office, President Obama was facing frightening challenges. Among these were an economic crash, two unwinnable wars, and a radically intransigent opposition party.
While President Obama was undoubtedly handed a multi-faceted mess, his methods of dealing with the crises that he was given have been anything but progressive. Upon election, Obama largely discarded his progressive campaign promises and adopted centrist or right leaning policies. This, combined with the extremism of the right wing and Obama’s willingness to make huge concessions, has led the nation to enact firmly right-wing policies.
In economic policy, Obama extended the Bush tax cuts, implemented austerity economics, and regularly gave the Republicans almost everything that they demanded in exchange for miniature concessions (such as not defaulting on the national debt).
Despite the clear evidence of fraud and money laundering by bankers, the Obama administration and Attorney General Holder have refused to prosecute even a single banker for their crimes. At worst, these bankers were fined a portion of their profits and no real consequences were levied against the banks, insurers, and other reckless firms that almost caused an economic crisis of 1929 proportions. Only TARP, ARRA, and other public sector rescues kept the destruction and destruction from getting any bigger than what we have experienced.
During the healthcare fight, Obama refused to fight for a single payer option (as he promised in his campaign) and decided to push a retread of the Heritage Foundation’s individual mandate.
In defense policy and civil liberties, Obama has been virtually indistinguishable from the neo-conservative war hawks of the Bush administration. Not only did Obama continue the drone program of the Bush era, but he massively expanded it and has even used it to assassinate American citizens without due process. Also, the Obama administration has engaged in a war on whistleblowers and has prosecuted Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou, who exposed the misdeeds of our government.
When we look at things in totality, President Obama does not embrace progressive policies. His greatest asset is that the “other guy” is far worse.
Progressives Must Make a Stand Now
Over the past several years, progressive and liberal Democrats in the United States have largely buckled under to the idea that we must go along with and support Obama for the simple reason that he is far better than the opposition. This may once have been true but that dramatically changed the moment Obama was reelected.
As Obama has already been reelected, there is now no possibility of progressive dissent electing an extreme right wing zealot. So now is the time that every progressive politician and activist must stand up and fight Obama’s capitulations.
Only positive results can come from a progressive uprising. At worst, progressives can position themselves in a better political position for future elections and, at best, progressives can press the president to adopt more progressive positions.
If President Obama continues to capitulate to Republicans and agree with right wing policy, progressives need to run against the president. If he wishes his legacy to include a “Grand Bargain” that cuts entitlements, that is his choice, but progressive have no reason to sign on. Barack Obama will never contest another election. This gives him a degree of freedom, but it also liberates progressives from the need to support him when he makes those bad choices.
The Breaking Point of Cutting Entitlements
In his 201 budget, President Obama proposed a change to calculating cost of living increases for Social Security to a “chained CPI.” This change will result in substantial and growing cuts to seniors’ retirement incomes. (Please refer to the chart.)
In essence, a shift to chained CPI reduces the growth rate of Social Security and veterans benefits by switching to a different method of calculating consumer prices. This shift lowers the rate at which Social Security benefits grow in relation to the value of benefits and results in a slow decline in benefits as the recipient ages. While such a shift will start with small reductions in benefits, these reductions will grow over the years and will have a long-term effect on the living conditions of seniors.
The president’s offer to cut Social Security is particularly odious because it is completely unnecessary. First, Social Security is solvent today and has not contributed a single cent to the national debt. Second, Social Security could easily be made solvent for decades without cutting benefits if the contribution cap for wealthy individuals’ were raised. Third, these cuts are a gift to the Republicans and will invite them to start unraveling the social safety net in a way that they have been trying to do for decades. Fourth, nonetheless, those same Republicans will work actively to harvest votes from seniors by teaching them to hate the president and the party that cut their benefits.
Social Security is vital to seniors’ economic security and is arguably progressives’ largest economic accomplishment in the modern era. If some Democrats are willing accede to Republicans’ demand to cut Social Security, then progressives must work to delay those cuts and do everything possible to stop them—if stopping them is impossible, progressives must replace those who supported cuts come election time.
Progressive politicians and activists have already begun to fight back. They are working to spread the word about what is going on. In coming weeks, progressives need to continue and expand this information campaign to ensure that every American understands that a shift to Chained CPI is simply a cut to Social Security.
While a shift from CPI to Chained CPI may sound arcane, it is actually easy to explain. Chained CPI = Cuts to benefits for seniors, full stop.
Sample slogan: “A chained CPI puts you in financial chains.”
Progressive politicians and activists must project their outrage at potential Social Security cuts across every available medium, and at every possible opportunity. Activists can write letters and articles, organize protests, and spread to word throughout their communities. Politicians can call press conferences and organize meetings with concerned groups like AARP and educate their constituents on the issues involved.
Put plainly, this is a situation where all hands must be on deck and the entirety of the progressive political movement must ensure that every American is aware that their Social Security is threatened by a very real and possibly bipartisan threat.
Progressive Democrats need to fight any cuts to Social Security loudly and publicly as well as make any process that would lead to such cuts as difficult and long as possible. In this issue, progressive Senators need to take a page out of the Republican playbook and engage in total obstruction.
If a Senate vote were to be scheduled on a bill that cuts Social Security, progressive senators should do a publicized standing filibuster. In order to sustain this, a rolling group of progressive Senators should hold a filibuster as long as possible, during which they should explain the cuts to the public. This would draw a great deal of media and public attention (similar to how Rand Paul did a standing filibuster of the Brennan nomination) and would focus a spotlight on the entire process. Delay thus wins added publicity.
Making the cuts visible would increase pressure on centrist Democrats and Republicans to distance themselves from the deal. Given the potential electoral consequences to a politician who is seen as attacking Social Security, this spotlight could kill the deal in the legislature.
In addition to raising the public awareness of the cuts and possibly stalling them for a time, this tactic would allow progressive Senators to very publically align themselves against any Social Security cuts—such an alignment would ensure that they are on the record opposing cuts if the cuts are eventually enacted.
Ultimately, there simply aren’t enough progressives in the legislature to completely stop a bill attacking entitlements, but there are certainly enough to make such legislation very slow to pass and to expose those pushing it to political pressure.
3. Propose Alternatives
Social Security is solvent for years, but it does need some alterations to become completely sustainable. President Obama and the Republicans want to cut benefits under Social Security in order to make the program more sustainable (although many Republicans really want to destroy the program). And some Republicans still want to privatize Social Security.
Removing the cap on the payroll taxes that finance the Social Security Trust Fund would make the program sustainable forever with no cuts to benefits. Progressives need to suggest this alternative to cuts and present the two sides to the American public. On one side, the pushers of the “grand bargain” can suggest cuts for poor old people. On the other, progressives can propose that wealthy individuals pay their fair share. If the polling is any indication, this would end very badly for those who support cuts to Social Security.
Suggesting an alternative to benefit cuts allows the American people two choices as to HOW they will make Social Security sustainable rather than being presented a choice between painful cuts to the program and its demise. This suggestion kills the argument that nobody wants to cut Social Security but it is a necessary evil forced on well-meaning politicians by the design of the program.
Cementing in the minds of the American people that there are real choices as to how to ensure the survival of Social Security only increases the outrage when politicians choose to cut benefits for everybody, rather than tax the top 10% a little more.
4. Marry Republicans to the Cuts
The ideal situation for the Republicans in both policy and politics is for them to maneuver President Obama and the Democratic Party into cutting Social Security without having to propose any specific cuts. If they can do this, they not only achieve the cuts that they desire, but are able to tar the Democrats, come election time, as the party that cut Social Security.
Progressives need to not just slow the process down, but to force the Republicans to expose their support for the cuts. If enough Democrats choose to—or are compelled to out of fear of repercussion—withdraw from supporting the eventual deal, Republicans will need to choose between scrapping the deal and signing on. Ideally, this tactic would force Obama to withdraw the cuts. More likely though, it would just result in many Republicans voting for the cuts.
If every Progressive Democrat in the legislature were to vote against a deal that cuts Social Security, it would necessitate many Republicans picking up the slack; this would force a majority of Republicans in the House to vote for the deal and would necessitate many Republicans in the Senate to sign on to break a progressive Senatorial filibuster.
If progressives can force Republicans to sign onto the cuts en-mass, it not only opens up the potential for Democrats to attack them during the next electoral cycle, but prevents the Republicans from utilizing such cuts against Democrats.
Progressives usually associate with the Democratic Party (except Rep. Sanders, who is an independent), and it is possible that Republicans could trick people into tarring progressives by association if they can blame Democrats for entitlement cuts. Forcing Republicans to sign up in support for a bill that they want to demonize for “slashing Social Security” preempts their attacks on Democrats—they cannot attack Democrats for supporting a bill that they also voted for (not that they won’t try).
5. Punish Every Democrat Who Signs on
As is already the stated plan of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, progressive activists and politicians need to primary every Democrat who supports cutting Social Security. If a Democrat supports such cuts, they are not progressive and need to be removed in favor of putting forward a candidate who actually supports progressive ideals.
Every Democrat who agrees to the cuts needs to know that they will be opposed in the primary by progressive groups and will be attacked from both sides due to their choice; The left will fight them in the primary and will make sure that everybody knows about their vote to cut Social Security; even if they win their primary fight, their Republican opponent will bludgeon them for supporting cuts and will be able to use the progressive primary fight against them. These politicians need to understand that this vote is likely the one that will decide whether or not they are going home unemployed after their next election.
Hopefully, this pressure will prevent Democrats from agreeing to the cuts and will preempt the need for progressives to target too many Democrats. If a significant number of Democrats can be swayed through this method of persuasion, then they can be mobilized in executing steps 1 through 3 of this plan.
6. Make Entitlement Cuts a Major Issue in 2014 and 2016
Whether the cuts are stopped or not, progressives should use this issue during the next election cycle. Cuts to Social Security are intensely unpopular with the American public and a vote to cut these programs is extremely politically toxic. Any politician to be branded as an attacker of Social Security will face a fierce backlash from the American public and will likely be at a disadvantage during their next election cycle.
If progressives block the cuts, progressive politicians can use this victory to gain an advantage over any Republican or Democrat who was on the other side of the issue. As previously discussed, every Democrat to support entitlement cuts should face a primary challenge, but this shouldn’t be limited to Democrats; any Republican to have signed onto a plan to cut entitlements should be constantly bombarded with questions and comments about this vote.
If progressives fail to stop the cuts, they should stress their extraordinary attempts while challenging every politician who voted it into law. Democrats who voted for such a deal would face a primary, while Republicans who voted for it would face a general election challenger armed with accusations of cutting Social Security.
If Obama chooses to set sail with the Republicans in attacking Social Security, progressives and liberal Democrats must let him sink with the Republicans. We must fight him at every turn and ensure that the process is as slow and politically damaging to the participants as possible. If this process is made odious enough, we may stall it, but, even if we fail, we can position progressives to sweep in and replace those who pushed this cut—once in power, these progressives can set things right, and even push politics in Washington back to the left.