White House Divided Over Social Security

by Jonathan Chait | March 15, 2011

Why is President Obama absent from the budget negotiations? Because, reports Alexander Bolton, his administration is still decided what to do:

Obama is being pulled in opposite directions by those whose priorities are fiscal and those whose No. 1 concern is electoral.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling and Sperling’s deputy, Jason Furman — leading figures in the president’s economic team — are pressing Obama to cut Social Security benefits if necessary, say sources familiar with their positions. 
But Obama’s political team, led by David Axelrod, David Plouffe and Jim Messina, are urging the president to understand that backing benefit cuts could prove disastrous to his 2012 reelection hopes, sources say. 
The political team is winning the argument so far, but internal debate rages at the White House as Republicans in Congress insist sweeping efforts to restore government finances must include Social Security reform. 

There's a benefit in bashing Republicans for going after Social Security. But that assumes they do go after Social Security, which, despite all their rhetoric, is far from certain. I'd argue that, politically speaking, obtaining a bipartisan deal on the deficit is likely to be popular. While the specifics of cutting entitlements are extremely unpopular, the general meta-message of bipartisan cooperation is highly popular. And people tend to follow the broad heuristics of whether the parties are getting along rather than the specifics, which is why the health care law, whose policies were mostly very popular, was so unpopular.

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