After reports surfaced that President Obama is willing to cut tens of billions of dollars from Medicare and Social Security, as part of a grand bargain in debt-ceiling talks with Republicans, Democratic leaders swiftly sounded off against the idea.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that she will oppose cuts to entitlements as part of any package, while the Congressional Progressive Caucus circulated a letter to the president insisting that the national debt should be reduced through new taxes instead of cuts to safety-net programs. It reads:
First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences. These cuts would hurt households and damage the country's economic recovery as well.
Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal. Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable.
In terms of Medicare, the idea would be to take money from providers without actually reducing people's benefits. However, these kinds of cuts were already made under the Affordable Care Act, leaving less available in sensible savings and requiring more precision than a giant chop suggests. The approach to Social Security would be along the same lines of making changes to inefficiencies in the program without scaling back on remunerations.
In that context, is putting them on the table in exchange for closing tax loopholes for the rich necessarily a disaster? And can Obama even negotiate a better deal when Republicans have so far ruled out tax rate increases?
I chatted with Michael Fauntroy, associate professor of public policy at George Mason University, for his analysis.
"I can understand why the president is talking about perhaps doing this deal," said Fauntroy. "The thing that's distasteful to me is that people who are on Social Security and people who need assistance with health care are pretty vulnerable. I don't think it's right to use their needs as a bargaining chip over tax loopholes. It's a difficult issue, but if he makes the deal it's really not in the interest of poor people."
Then what should the president to do?
"He doesn't have to do anything," said Fauntroy, echoing Bill Clinton's "Don't Blink" argument. Since most people know that the debt limit must be raised, concede nothing. "The Republicans know that if they don't agree to a deal and let the debt limit hit, it's going to damage our economy. If things go badly, they're going to be the ones holding the bag. So I don't think the president ought to give anything to them. His unwillingness to fight it out on this gives credence to those who are concerned about his commitment to helping people in need."
Of course, that's a tall order for a president who has always used the more pragmatic approach of taking the best deal he thinks he can get. It's just not in his DNA to kneecap the other side. "I understand, that's not who he is," said Fauntroy. "But I think House Republicans have held the country hostage by demanding that he damage poor people even more — and he's got to do better than that."
As Obama continues to work with lawmakers through the weekend, we'll soon see which approach he ultimately takes.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.