There’s an email petition appeal going around from firedoglake (FDL), encouraging us to “Hold The Obama Campaign To Its Guarantee of 'No Changes' to Social Security". It lays out very nicely how, on the one hand, “Joe Biden 'guaranteed' the president would not touch Social Security if re-elected,” and, on the other, “the president again voiced support for ‘tough spending cuts’ to programs like Social Security and Medicare... and complains he doesn't get enough credit for his own willingness to cut benefits.” [FDL’s emphasis]
FDL has been good on a lot of issues, especially healthcare reform, where they campaigned for single-payer relentlessly. But how, exactly, are they going to “make sure the Obama administration honors this commitment”? With a petition? Really? Isn’t it obvious, from their own experience, that Obama is going to talk out of both sides of his mouth during the campaign, and do whatever he wants after the election? And what he wants is to be remembered as the fiscally-responsible Democrat who cut Social Security.
In his first term, Obama offered a “grand bargain” that included, according to the Washington Post, “smaller cost-of-living increases for Social Security recipients, [and] nearly $250 billion in Medicare savings, achieved in part by raising the eligibility age.” Only Republican intransigence saved us from that.
Obama also proposed a national budget that, as commentator Shamus Cooke puts it, “would have made a Republican blush only four years ago,” with “$580 billion in adjustments [cuts] to health and entitlement programs, including $248 billion to Medicare and $72 billion to Medicaid.” (New York Times)
As Cooke points out, it was Obama’s embrace of “entitlement reform” in this manner that opened the “heavy political door,” through which the radical reactionary Paul Ryan strode, to be greeted by Obama himself as the Serious New Policy Expert, bearing a “serious … entirely legitimate proposal.” (Really, watch the linked video of the 2010 Republican “retreat.” It’s practically a bromance.)
Ryan was also greeted with giddy glee by Erskine Bowles, Obama’s pick to co-chair the catfood commission, who said: “This guy [Ryan] can run circles around me…and the budget he came forward with is just like Paul Ryan. It is a sensible, straightforward, honest, serious budget." Bowles is also the conservative Democrat whom Bill Clinton picked as the front for his attempted “grand bargain” to cut Social Security and other “entitlements” in the 90s. The Republicans’ impeachment obsession saved us that time.
The Democrats have been trying to weasel their way into cutting Social Security and Medicare for quite a while. Paul Ryan is just the latest foil. As Cooke puts it: “Ryan had to aim high and far right, since the President had veered wildly to the right past most of Ryan’s Republican colleagues.”
So let me understand the strategy: FDL gathers a gazillion signatures on their internet petition, with Joe Biden’s “guarantee” in bold italics, and sends it off to Obama campaign headquarters with the stern warning that they are going to “Hold The Obama Campaign Accountable.” Then, after the election, in which almost every one of those gazillion signators has voted for Obama, just as he’s about to strike the deal we all know he’s itching to strike, they’ll swoop back upon him, saying: “Stop, Mr. President, sir. Look again at these gazillion signatures,” and that’ll scare/shame him into seeing the error of his ways. Yes, Virginia.
The reality is that there is no “holding accountable.” Certainly not from liberal groups who abjure the only “or else” they have. How much can FDL forget? Obama’s betrayal of “their” cause is not a future possibility, but an established fact, not a dread, but a memory.
How many times is Sideshow Liberal going to step on this rake?
This is not an argument against petitions. In a context where political leaders are consistently held accountable to their constituents, as one aspect of a serious political movement that understands its goals and has a strategy to fight on all fronts, they can be effective. In a context where the political class has no such accountability, and the political left has no such movement, they can become a way for folks to avoid recognizing they’re in such a situation, and – especially in our utterly corrupt electoral context – to feel that they’re doing something more effective than is possible. The issue isn’t whether one signs petitions. Go ahead and sign a petition. I sign petitions. The issue is whether we’re in a political context where petitions mean what we’re supposed to think that they mean. I think that the political and socio-economic situation of the United States today – one for which Obama and the Democrats are as culpable as anyone – is way beyond petitions. Try pitchforks.
Here’s the deal, and anyone with a memory and a moderate ability to restrain wishful thinking knows it: Obama doesn’t give a whit about anything from leftists and progressives except their money and their votes. If progressive voters who claim to be adamant about these kinds of issues would threaten (And mean it and make clear that they mean it. No more “public option” capitulations.) to withhold their votes, as well as their money (I’m talking to all you Catwomen of the West Wing), and if there actually were a “progressive” media that would take a couple of nights off from telling us how crazy the Republicans are, to hammer Obama on this issue (and some others), it might make a difference. Unfortunately, this is not how it is on the planet of American Liberalism.
What we will see are those liberals and liberal groups rooting for, and funding, a knock-down, drag out, with Rowdy Roddy and Sgt. Slaughter (and we all know who’s wearing that costume this time) throwing a few chairs at each other, while Fox and MSNBC egg them on from their respective corners. Obama and the Democrats will campaign against “privatization” of Social Security, which even the Republicans have abandoned, and demonize the once “serious” and “entirely legitimate” Paul Ryan. All the while, they will be not only keeping open the possibility of, but planning for, precedent-setting cuts, which Obama has already agreed to make.
And, yes, their political position would actually be stronger if they would instead consistently, aggressively, and persuasively support Social Security against all cuts (and “means testing,” fixing up the COLA, etc., are cuts!). But they won’t and they can’t -- on principle (insofar as any such thing could be said to exist in this context). This is because, deep-down, they accept the conservative economic principles, including the critique of “entitlements,” underlying the neoliberal austerity agenda. Whatever Obama or Joe Biden says during the campaign, the next Obama administration, claiming to be standing on the high ground of principle, will be, and will be proud to be, the first administration to cut Social Security. Guaranteed. And they’ll sell it as a “save.” Obama and the Democratic Party really think it’s the right thing to do. And while they won’t quite say that out loud, the current campaign season is preparing the ground for it.
A tweet I came across the other day nicely captured the implicit Democratic campaign slogan: “We must stop Romney & Ryan from cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid! That's Obama's job.”
Speaking of the lamestream liberal media, MSNBC really should consider renaming itself “The Republican Channel” – because all they do is talk about Republicans. I guess, when you’re claiming to be “progressive,” and are at the same time committed to supporting a president and a party who are quite obviously not very progressive at all (or, maybe, lying tools of the ruling class – choose the truth you can handle), it’s better not to say anything about them at all.