Election 2016

Obama Once Proposed Cutting Social Security. Here’s What Changed His Mind.

huffingtonpost.comPresident Barack Obama announced his support for expanding Social Security benefits on June 1, 2016. The remarks are the culmination of a major shift in the Democratic Party.

WASHINGTON — When President Barack Obama announced his support this week for expanding Social Security benefits, it was nothing less than a sea change. Progressive activists claimed credit for the move as both a clear nod to their power in the age of Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and the fruits of ambitious activism that slowly but surely moved the bounds of the mainstream political discussion. Whether Obama’s remarks mark a shift in his policy views, a politically expedient concession to an ascendant progressive wing or something in between, it is an unmistakable indicator of the Democratic Party’s return to its New Deal roots. But getting there required a slog through the political aftermath of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. Obama entered the White House at a time of economic crisis and rapidly increasing national debt. Virtually from the start of his presidency, Washington was seized with hysteria over the latter phenomenon. Although a diverse array of economists believe Obama’s $800-billion stimulus package played a key role in helping the economy recover, it elicited howls from the right for contributing to the already rising debt. Much of the growth in annual budget deficits for which Obama was blamed, however, was due to the Great Recession and the Bush tax cuts — things he had no control over. Stopping “out-of-control spending,” in the form of the president’s stimulus package and other policies, became one of the nascent tea party’s rallying cries. Even as the country struggled to beat back double-digit unemployment, addressing the debt became among the most pressing issues in Washington. Think tanks and pundits on all sides of the spectrum lined up to warn of the dire consequences of avoiding an “adult” conversation about the unsustainable costs of Social Security and Medicare. And the Obama administration — rather than fight the narrative of out-of-control debt tooth and nail — chose to accommodate it. Just a year into Obama’s presidency, the White House began to pivot away from fiscal stimulus and toward austerity. The president convened a bipartisan debt reduction commission in February 2010, co-chaired by Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, and former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wy.), and charged it with forging a fiscal “grand bargain.” That became the catchphrase of choice on the Bowles-Simpson commission — and in budget talks in subsequent years — for a compromise agreement to reduce the long-term debt, through a combination of Social Security and Medicare cuts historically anathema to Democrats and revenue increases and defense cuts hard for Republicans to swallow.

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