Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.
Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The great mystery of Barack Obama remains the extent to which he has ever believed his own rhetoric about a transformative, post-partisan presidency. Was it really possible, I asked early last year, “that Obama had mistaken the U.S. government for the Harvard Law Review, where the emollient balm of his personality persuaded rival factions to reason together?”

No Chicago politician, I decided, could possibly be that naïve. And yet here we go again. With Mitt Romney in the rear-view mirror and congressional Republicans more intransigent than ever, Obama has been taking GOP senators out to dinner, while the White House has supposedly made party hardliners the proverbial budgetary offer they can’t refuse.

Obama’s willingness to swap “reforms” in the way cost-of-living increases to Social Security benefits are calculated—the so-called “chained CPI”—in return for higher revenues from closing tax loopholes, has many liberals howling mad.

And yet Republicans will almost certainly refuse it.

But hold that thought.

“You cannot be a good Democrat and cut Social Security,” Arshad Hasan, the executive director of Democracy for America, told the New York Times. The group staged a protest outside the White House. Newly-elected Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) dispatched an email to her supporters arguing that “our Social Security system is critical to protecting middle-class families, and we cannot allow it to be dismantled inch by inch.”

Realistically, “inch by inch” is more apt than “dismantled.” According to economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who strenuously opposes chained CPI, “President Obama’s proposal would reduce benefits by 0.3 percent for each year after a worker retires. After 10 years benefits would be cut by 3.0 percent, after 20 years 6.0 percent, and after 30 years 9.0 percent. Over a 20-year retirement, the average cut would be 3.0 percent.”

That’s about $36 on the average $1,200 Social Security check—noticeable, but hardly crippling. Obama’s proposal also comes with complicated formulas for protecting the poorest recipients.

The kinds of Washington wise men who wear expensively tailored suits on TV talk shows pronounced themselves well pleased. On PBS NewsHour, the lefty/righty team of Mark Shields and David Brooks called Obama “gutsy” and “brave,” respectively, for sticking it to greedy geezers.

And yet, as I say, none of this is likely to happen. No sooner had the Obama budget been released than partisans on both sides began showing something less than earnest good faith. The initial GOP response came from the head of the Republicans’ House campaign committee, Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, who denounced what he called the president’s “shocking attack on seniors.”