Obama hands progressives a win on Social Security

Written By By LYNN SWEET Washington Bureau Chief Posted: 03/22/2014, 12:44am

WASHINGTON — In this election year, President Barack Obama is dropping a proposal to shave Social Security cost-of-living increases in his upcoming budget, a plan despised by many Democrats in general and progressives in particular.

This is a progressive victory, and Obama’s decision comes as discussion of a progressive resurgence in the U.S. is increasing. It’s triggered most recently by the election of New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the growing prominence of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Democrats are not adrift, but there may be some course corrections as Democrats look toward the November elections and the 2016 presidential campaign. Who gets the politics and policy better: DeBlasio and Warren — or centrists Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hillary Clinton? Or is everything situational?

(Ironically, the Big Apple and Second City mayors share the same media consultants, AKPD, the Chicago-based political firm founded by David Axelrod.)

Of the Democrats Illinois sends to Congress —12 House Democrats and Sen. Dick Durbin — the most unabashed outspoken progressive in the delegation is Rep. Jan Schakowsky.

Keeping hands off Medicare and Social Security are among Schakowsky’s signature issues.

Back when she was the executive director of the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens in 1989, she organized that famous seniors protest of a Medicare change championed by then Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, and the pictures of seniors chasing him to his car are iconic.

The White House announced Thursday that Obama made an ill-fated “detour” in his fiscal 2014 budget when he offered Republicans a deal: to reduce the rate of Social Security growth in exchange for concessions to Democrats. Curbing that growth was achieved by calculating payment boosts to what is called the “chained consumer price index,” or in Washington shorthand, the “chained CPI.”

A senior White House official said Thursday that the 2014 approach “was a show of good faith to spark additional negotiations with Congressional Republicans about our long-term debt and deficits, and to encourage all parties to come together to remove the damaging cuts caused by sequestration that have hurt our economy.

“The compromise embedded in last year’s budget included policies like chained CPI — the No. 1 policy change that Republicans had asked for in previous fiscal negotiations.”

Obama was never able to strike that “grand bargain” with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, even with the Social Security sweetener that enraged Democrats and created divisions within their ranks. There has been friction between the Obama White House and progressives for years.

Schakowsky, who had been leading a charge against the chained CPI, applauded Obama’s decision.

“The president, in not putting this in his budget, is being responsive not only to progressives who certainly have been vociferously fighting this battle, but he is in right in the mainstream of where Americans are,” Schakowsky told me.

She was one of 118 Democratic House members (out of 200) who wrote Obama this week asking him not to put the chained CPI in his budget.

Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement, “This is a huge progressive victory — and greatly increases Democratic chances of taking back the House and keeping the Senate. Now, the White House should join Elizabeth Warren and others in pushing to expand Social Security benefits to keep up with the rising cost of living.”

Expanding Social Security growth in 2014 — that’s politically unrealistic and would divide, not unite the segments of the Democratic family.

Obama is in terrible shape if the Democrats lose control of the Senate in November, and dropping the chained CPI took away an issue that could have Democrats at each others’ throats.

That’s one less item for the Illinois Democrats with big contests in November — freshmen Reps. Brad Schneider, Cheri Bustos, Bill Foster and Bill Enyart — to have to maneuver around.

White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said chained CPI is still on the table if the Republicans have something to trade.

But that’s more rhetoric than political reality.

Trimming Social Security increases this year — Obama is packing that away in a box. Locked with a chain.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet

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