Obama Should Watch His Left Flank on Entitlements

Some Democrats raised red flags with the language Obama used to discuss government spending and entitlement reform in the State of the Union.

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President Barack Obama is greeted after giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington.

President Obama's State of the Union address has been widely praised on the left for laying out a progressive governing vision. But when it comes to entitlements there may yet be trouble in paradise.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the chief House Democratic deputy whip, warned Wednesday morning that her Democratic colleagues may not be willing to back President Obama on some of his entitlement reform proposals. "You're going to see great support [of Obama's agenda] from the Democratic caucus," she said. But, she added, "around entitlements there may be some difference."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

In the speech, Obama said that he was "prepared to enact reforms that will achieve the same amount of health care savings by the beginning of the next decade as the reforms proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission" and added that "those of us who care deeply about programs like Medicare must embrace the need for modest reforms—otherwise, our retirement programs will crowd out the investments we need for our children, and jeopardize the promise of a secure retirement for future generations."

Of course the latter is a distinctly liberal argument for entitlement reform—not because of the inherent virtues of a balanced budget but to prevent other priorities from getting squeezed. In that regard the argument is a mirror opposite cousin of the GOP theory that they can dry the social programs by continually and deeply cutting taxes and so cutting off government's lifeblood.

But progressives worry that Obama might be too willing to deal on entitlements. For example Adam Green of the activist group the Progressive Change Campaign Committee sent supporters an E-mail last night during the speech with the subject line "Dangerous SOTU word change?" He flagged an Obama ad lib in the section about fiscal issues. The following line wasn't in the president's prepared remarks: "Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes?" Green wondered in his E-mail, "is it over-thinking it to [think] 'How is it that emergency X justifies A, but not B' implies that emergency X is real and A and B together are the solution?"

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

For what it's worth, I think Green may indeed be overthinking it—I read Obama's ad lib as calling the Republicans out for intellectual inconsistency, not buying into their view that there really is a fiscal emergency, especially when you consider it the broader context of his pointedly saying that deficit reduction is not in and of itself an economic policy.

But it shows how sensitive progressives remain when it comes to what Obama is prepared to do regarding entitlements.

"I don't know exactly what the president has in mind for Medicare" Schakowsky said this morning , while pointing out that she liked his language about "paying for outcomes and quality and that will [produce] savings and also talking about something having to do with prescription drugs and lowering the cost of prescription costs. It would be great if it were allowed for Medicare to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies." And while Obama didn't talk much about Social Security, she added that many Democrats are concerned that "chained CPI will be something that is on the table. Many of us are urging that Social Security will be in totally different conversations."

This bears continued watching if anything resembling a grand bargain does bubble up again in the next round of fiscal negotiations.

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