Barak Obama is the first Democratic president to advocate cutting Social Security benefits. Whatever happens next, this is a historic change of direction for his party and an ominous turning point for the American social/economic compact.
In the Bible—Book of Genesis, to be precise—Esau returns, exhausted and famished, from working in the fields, and sees his brother Jacob eating. He asks if he can share, and Jacob says yes—but as the price of his “mess of pottage,” he must give Jacob his birthright. He agrees, and thus is inaugurated the prosperity of the descendants of Jacob and the impoverishment of Esau’s.
This ancient tale is being repeated today in Washington, where the first months of the second Obama administration are shaping up as a historic disaster for American working people. It’s also a momentous turning point for the Democratic Party, now led by a business and professional elite convinced that to survive as a brand, the party must serve as executioner of the social contract that created that brand to begin with.
First, the Obama administration, and congressional Democrats, agreed to a deal to end the artificial “fiscal cliff” crisis that made the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts permanent—in fact, rescued them from imminent expiration. In return, they got a temporary extension of unemployment benefits, a two-month delay of sequestration, and extension of child care and tuition tax credits. All of which are quite nice in their own way, but small potatoes—nothing that Washington couldn’t easily scuttle at some point in the near future, just as it cast aside Obama’s signature anti-poverty measure, the Making Work pay tax credit, when that one became inconvenient.
The president, in other words, received a “mess of pottage” in return for surrendering something of inestimable value to the Republicans, something the GOP had been fighting for a decade to consummate. Crucially, only nine of the 77 members of the House Progressive Caucus voted against the bill, encouraging the White House that it could go further and making clear to voters from working households that their ability to hold their alleged champions in line is fading. The fiscal cliff drama served notice that less and less of an effective countervailing force exists to the Washington consensus, deepening the chasm that separates The Village from any meaningful connection with the 99%.
Now, it’s happening again, via the president’s budget. This time, the deal is for another $680 billion-some in revenues over 10 years by limiting tax breaks. This is calculated to please the deficit hawks by raising Obama’s 10-year deficit reduction total to $4.3 trillion, topping the $4 trillion that the center-right cargo cult has touted as its magic number. In return, the White House proposes, quite literally, to surrender the Democratic Party’s birthright—its stewardship of Social Security, the capstone of the New Deal and the foundation of working Americans’ party loyalty—what remains of it, that is.
By beginning the process of redefining Social Security downward, the Obama administration is taking the first major step toward dismantling the Democratic “brand”—its commitment, never perfect to begin with, to provide a social underpinning to American capitalism. For the vast majority of Americans, the “Democratic Party” label means less and less. Read the rest of this entry →