It’s the safety net, stupid

The key question that needs to be asked about Obama’s handling of the spending wars is not really whether Dems are “winning” the political battle with Republicans. Rather, it’s this: Are Obama and Dems doing everything they can to embrace deficit-reduction measures that also preserve and defend the social safety net?

On the first point, at least, a poll released by CNN yesterday seems to suggest Democrats and the White House came out looking better than their opponents.

But on the second and more important point, we’re now hearing that Obama's deficit reduction speech is reportedly going to be modeled on the recommendations of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission. Though the commission’s recommendations cut Medicare and Medicaid rather than essentially destroying them — the plan is not as radical as the one put forth by Paul Ryan — it’s still a conservative ideological document whose approach to closing the deficit involves a notion of “shared sacrifice” falls largely on people of lesser financial means.

Simpson-Bowles includes unnecessary cuts to Social Security that harm lower-income workers. The proposal has a number of other terrible ideas, too. The plan does propose significant defense cuts, but those would probably be the first to go once negotiations start in earnest.

If Obama does embrace Simpson-Bowles, it will be part of a larger pattern, in which the White House’s ongoing response to the GOP serves to reinforce the conservative ideological economic vision in a way that makes it harder for Dems to fight back against the Republicans’ calls for ever-deeper cuts.

To be fair, we should withhold full judgment on the President’s approach until we see the specifics of his plan and whether they mitigate the regressive aspects of the Simpson-Bowles recommendations. But either way, the question of whether embracing an unaltered Simpson-Bowles would be a good move politically is ultimately inconsequential. The more important question is whether it would be a good idea. It wouldn’t.

The responsibility of a Democratic president facing an opposing majority in the House should be defending the social saftety net, not enabling further attacks on it. We should wait and see what happens tomorrow, but so far, it’s not looking promising.

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