Has Obama Forgotten that Republicans Want to Shrink Government?

Jamelle Bouie / The American Prospect

He still doesn't care about poor people.

The lead Politico story today is on President Obama’s rhetoric of “class warfare” and its implications for showdowns on guns, immigration, and budget politics. Politico takes an odd tone throughout, treating Obama’s push for higher taxes on “millionaires and billionaires” as opportunistic rhetoric, and not as a (half-hearted) response to yawning income inequality and tax policies skewed to favor the wealthiest Americans.

More interesting than that, however, is a line from David Axelrod, Obama confidante and senior strategist for the president’s reelection campaign. Responding to liberal discontent over Obama’s proposed cuts to Social Security (and to a lesser extent, Medicare), Axelrod offers a choice—liberals can accept mild cuts from a Democratic administration, or fight deep, destructive cuts from a Republican one:

“There’s no doubt that there are some members of Congress who see Medicare and Social Security as a club with which to pound the opposition, and they would just as soon have the issue than address long-term problems with the programs,” said Axelrod.

What many centrist Democrats worry about is the party’s congressional wing delaying reforms in order to to hang on to the issue, only to be ultimately blamed when benefits are cut deeply or taxes are significantly raised.

Of course, this requires liberals to accept a whole host of debatable premises: that cuts are needed to preserve the integrity of retirement programs, that these cuts are the best way to accomplish that goal, that Republicans will win enough power to push through cuts, and—most importantly—that the GOP is sincerely concerned with the health of retirement programs and would forgo further changes if preempted by Democrats.

The first three exist in the realm of possibility, the fourth—however—is delusional. The main goal of Representative Paul Ryan’s budget—supported by almost all wings of the GOP, and pushed by its presidential candidates last year—is to remove poor people from the cradle of “dependency” by slashing benefits and ending the programs. The savings, in turn, would fund tax cuts and other benefits for the rich.

It’s not at all far fetched to believe a future Republican administration would build on cuts signed by Obama, citing him as evidence this is a sensible approach. Put another way, if Congress had passed a “grand bargain” in 2011—trading Medicare cuts for tax increases—and Obama lost re-election, does anyone doubt that a Romney administration would push for further “reforms” to reduce spending?

Yes, Republican politicians insist on “protecting and preserving” retirement programs. But rhetoric aside, the GOP has a substantive commitment to dismantling key parts of the social safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Why should liberals accept the administration’s position, and prime the pump for future cuts?

A much better bet is to make the case that we can reform retirement programs by expanding their scope and changing their focus. By Beltway standards, it sounds crazy, but maybe the best way to strengthen “entitlements” is to make them more robust.