By Bill Boyarsky
At his news conference this week, President Barack Obama seized on a misleading Washington word—“entitlements”—to describe the badly needed aid programs that are likely to be cut because of his compromises with the Republicans.
“Entitlement” is a misleading word because it masks the ugly reality of reducing medical aid for the poor, the disabled and anyone over 65 as well as cutting Social Security. Calling such programs entitlements is much more comfortable than describing them as what they are—Medicare, Social Security and money for good schools, unemployment insurance, medical research and public works construction that would put many thousands to work.
It’s also a Republican word. It implies that those receiving government aid have a sense of entitlement, that they’re getting something for nothing. And now it’s an Obama word as he moves toward the center and away from the progressives who powered his 2008 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination over centrist Hillary Clinton.
“There is, frankly, resistance on my side to do anything on entitlements,” he said before heading into another negotiating session over raising the debt limit and cutting the budget. “There is strong resistance on the Republican side to do anything on revenues. But if each side takes a maximalist position, if each side wants 100 percent of what its ideological predispositions are, then we can’t get anything done.”
It’s impossible to decode anyone’s language because of the maneuvering over the debt limit. But Obama was clear about his long-range goals in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington on April 13.
Although his proposals were not as radical as those of the House Republicans, he accepted the guts of the Republican-tea party creed—budget cutting and deficit reduction rather than the economic stimulus this recession-racked country needs.
He proposed reducing Medicare and Medicaid by $500 billion by 2023 and “an additional $1 trillion in the decade after that.” And if more cuts must be made, the independent cost-cutting commission authorized by his health reform law would do it, although Obama described the process in a deceptively positive way: “additional savings by further improving Medicare.”
He also left open the possibility of cost cutting in Social Security. “Both parties should work together now to strengthen Social Security for future generations. But we have to do it without putting at risk current retirees, or the most vulnerable, or people with disabilities; without slashing benefits for future generations.”
That, of course, would permit raising the eligibility age for future recipients or imposing more income limits on the program.
Even so, this isn’t enough for the Republicans. Presumably, Obama has offered these concessions and possibly more in the negotiating sessions. After listening to Obama, Speaker John Boehner treated him in a manner that verged on contempt. “Where’s the president’s plan?” he said. “When’s he going to lay his cards on the table? This debt limit increase is his problem, and I think it’s time for him to lead by putting his plan on the table, something that the Congress can pass.”
Instead of surrendering to Republicans and trying to put a positive spin on it, the president should frankly acknowledge the nation’s miseries. As he spoke Monday, unemployment was at 9.2 percent overall and 13.3 percent for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. African-Americans and Latinos are especially hurt; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that the unemployment rate was 8.1 percent for whites, 16.2 percent for African-Americans and 11.6 percent for Latinos.
“The depth of the job losses from the recession is unprecedented since the Great Depression, and the length of time it will take just to get out of the jobs hole—much less to restore full employment—will dwarf that of the sluggish jobs recovery from the 2001 recession,” said Chad Stone, the center’s chief economist. “It makes no sense that in an economic recovery still struggling to gain momentum, policymakers are easing up on the gas and threatening to slam on the brakes. But that is just what is happening.”
What’s shocking is that Obama is in the brake-slammer’s camp.
Rather than joining the spending cutters, he should fight harder for pending public works legislation that would provide jobs for construction workers and others on transit and highway projects around the country. Unemployment insurance should be extended. The president should stop bargaining away Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Why can’t we worry about the deficit when the country is back to work?
Rather than trying to conciliate the Republicans, Obama ought to speak out against them. The truth is that Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell don’t want to work with Obama. Their goal is to beat him in 2012 and take control of the Senate. A continued recession with rising unemployment will help them reach that goal.
To stop them, Obama has to be honest, forthright and progressive—and stop using “entitlements” to refer to worthwhile government programs. He’s a writer. He must know what negative nuances the word carries.
AP / Susan Walsh
House Speaker John Boehner, right, stands with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor during a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday.