Throughout the entire budget debate this summer, there have been apologists for Team Obama who have defended Obama's negotiating tactics (which involved offering unprecedented cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as predictable chops to Medicaid) as necessary to appease the far-right Republicans and evade a catastrophic default. Of course, never mind that if it has gone this close to the cliff, it's due to Obama's poor negotiating skills climaxing last year with the lame duck Congress, where he caved to their demands for continued tax cuts to the rich. And never mind that Obama has other weapons at his disposal, like using the 14th Amendment to nullify the debt ceiling or using other legal banking moves to continue government financing.
Still, while I am no fan of Barack Obama, even I defended him to a degree on this issue on a recent episode of Robert Larson's Out The Rabbit Hole on KUCI.org. Whatever I think of him, I don't Obama is personally conservative to any degree (in that if he is right wing in practice, it is by mere cynical pragmatic strategy and not by personal conviction) and I don't think he is stupid. More important, he has had the opportunity before to jump the shark on cutting Social Security earlier this year when the leaders of his so-called "Deficit Commission" released their recommendations, and he didn't. If he was throwing out an offer to do so now, it was merely because he knew the GOP still wouldn't agree to any deal with income tax increases in the mix. Thus, he could look as acting in good faith in negotiating, something that the Republicans can't.
As usual, even I was giving Obama too much credit. To begin with, as Paul Krugman has wisely observed, it was Obama, and not the Republicans, who put an offer of Social Security cuts into the mix. (Yes, the Republicans in the House did vote to privatize Medicare, but even they with their ultra-right reactionary view knew that attacking SS was a political loser.) The significance of this can't be overstated: simply put, arguably the most successful (and most popular) program in the history of American government, one conceived by and pushed through as law by a Democratic congress and president, was being offered up in the budget debate not by evil Republicans who hate old people but rather by a Democratic president. That Social Security is also the shining example of the New Deal - when a New Deal II rather than austerity is needed - makes it all the more offensive.
This also brings up another common lie by the Obamapologists, that his rightward shifts are nothing more than following what Clinton did with his strategy of triangulation. Of course, there are different circumstances here: Clinton used it as a defensive strategy in 1995 with both houses in GOP hands, while Obama ran with it when he started in office, with a solid majority of Dems in the HOR and 60 out of 100 senators. In any case, we can argue why Clinton used triangulation and how effective it was, but specifically in the budget debate, it is important to point out that Obama is not using triangulation at all. After all, the whole idea of triangulation is the president taking a supposed centrist position between the two excesses in the left and right. In the case of Social Security, Obama has taken a position even to the right of the GOP's own posturing.
Making the situation worse was Obama warning that Social Security checks may not be cut on August 3rd if a budget deal isn't in place. Yes, he was answering a question, but it was a question he could've easily dodged. Again, there are options besides default that the White House has at its disposal, including citing the 14th Amendment, and Team Obama certainly hasn't shied away from asserting executive power. So why issue the dire warning? The best explanation I can think of is Obama is using the Shock Doctrine strategy espoused by Naomi Klein in her book of the same name. Obama is trying to put the elderly in a state of shock so that if he does cut a deal involving social security cuts, they will consider it a reasonable alternative to the nightmare scenario of SS going broke.
The good news is that Congress appears to be rebelling against Obama's "grand bargain" plan, Republicans because it includes nominal income tax increases, and Democrats because it requires them to support Social Security and Medicare cuts. This is a positive sign, but the cynical side of me looks at the last decades of betrayals by both parties of the poor and middle class, and it's hard to dismiss the likelihood that this is mere kabuki theater and will end up with a last minute deal which cuts entitlements, a deal praised by the establishment media as some sort of incredible compromise.
No matter the short term results of Obama's offer, there can be no good from it long term. Obama has set the precedent that Social Security and Medicare are now fair game in budget debate, and it seems likely it will continue to be used as cannon fodder in future budget battles thanks to this.
The only question left to ask is why. As in, why did Obama do this and why does he continue to engage in a strategy of betraying his base? The best answer I can think of is that Obama and his advisors believe that ultimately his base will crawl over glass to support him, especially when faced with an extremely right-wing GOP and no potential Republican nominee with anything resembling charisma. Apparently Obama thinks he can get more votes by snuggling as close to the right wing as possible than battling for the interests of his base.
Of course, this game plan didn't work too well in 2010, and it probably won't help for the Democratic Party at large in 2012. They were basing their campaign strategy on being the defenders of Social Security and Medicare from the crazed extremists in the GOP, so Obama's moves cut the heart out of their argument. So he has not only alienated political insiders in his own party, but the very base that it caters to. That appears fine to Obama, as he has apparently decided to cut his political ties to the fortunes of the Democratic Party and its supporters. That leads me conclude that the only thing worse than having a Republican in the White House in 2013 surrounded by right-wing extremists may be to continue having a Democrat in there who seems eager to continue shifting the frame of the debate even further to the right than most could have imagined in 2008.