The Obama administration has a problem. As much Republican good will or corporate campaign cash as they expect to gain from their reinforcing of the deficit hysteria meme (which, let’s face it, will not be very much at all), even the most cynical of the president’s economic team realizes that all this budget cutting isn’t going to do squat for the current economy. Without something directly stimulative, the recovery likely stalls. Without some sort of jobs program, the unemployment picture continues to look grim. There is no “car” to worry about putting in reverse—it has been spinning its wheels for some time now, and, as most Americans see it, it never did drive out of that ditch.
Yes, with 2012 shaping up to be another “it’s the economy, stupid” election year, O & Co. has a problem—but with the same deficit hawks and scorched-earth partisans controlling Congress, what is a president obsessed with bipartisan-like process to do?
A natural place to look would be the deal the White House cut last December with House Republicans—and indeed, Obama went to that well earlier this week. During an appearance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president floated the idea of extending a central part of that deal, the two-percent payroll tax cut for employees, for another year. Then, never failing to miss an opportunity to negotiate with itself, the White House later posited an employer-side payroll tax break (instead of the employee-side cut? in addition to? hard to say, but it is fairly easy to guess which would be favored by the GOP) as an incentive to business for some sort of job creation.
Payroll taxes, however, are not some sort of rainy-day fund the government puts aside when it can, there to use if it needs a new washing machine. . . or the economy is in a ditch. These payroll taxes—the ones Obama is offering to cut—go to fund Social Security and disability. The 2010 deal cost roughly $112 billion, and it figures extending the cut another year will cost the same. If the employer-side cut is comparable, and it is paired with an extension of the employee-side holiday, Social Security could be out close to $400 billion by the end of next year.
The Obama administration has assured us that the Social Security shortfall will be made up from the general revenue, but if the White House does not think it has the political capital to push through a more straightforward (and almost certainly more effective) money-for-jobs stimulus plan, why are we to grant that they can engineer a repayment of the Social Security fund? And even if that transfer were politically possible, what $400 billion cut in the federal budget will have to be made to appease the deficit peacocks?
All of this—or any of this—puts additional pressure on Social Security, or, more accurately, lends ammunition to those already taking pot shots at the long-term viability of the program. If there are already “serious” people trying to shock-doctrine in changes to the retirement plan, how much more shocking could they make things seem after taking a two-, three-, or four-hundred billion-dollar bite out of its reserves?
None of these cold calculations likely come as a big surprise to the White House. In fact, this is all possibly part of the political calculation—that one of the reasons Hill Republicans might go along with an Obama-proffered plan of any sort is the resulting dent it puts in the Social Security trust fund.
That might seem like a successful trade to administration insiders, buying themselves some small bit of help for an economy on the skids and sure to suffer from any “deficit reduction,” but it comes at a heck of a price. Not only does the economic upside of this bargain look relatively small, the political downside is potentially huge. As both the recent Medicare scare and the 2005 Social Security privatization push have taught us, American voters hate it when you threaten their “entitlements.” If Republicans can muddy the waters, or actually drag the White House into the mud with them, on Social Security “reform” (read: benefit cuts), they will have taken away one of the Democrats’ most effective salvos for the coming campaign.
And that will come in addition to a litany of “wins” for the corporatists, deficit hawks, party hacks, and TEA-totaling ideologues—more tax breaks, less federal spending, a dead-weight economy, and a damaged social safety net. To counter all of that, the Obama administration offers its float of payroll tax cuts and the hope that this and a little economic luck will change things for the better. . . or at least keep enough voters from noticing how they have gotten worse.