Howard Dean’s Anti-Obama Scream

I have suspected that there was bad blood between the Obama Administration and Howard Dean since the start, including the fact that he was not kept on as chair of the Democratic National Committee. Dean has some over the top comments on Obama’s budget proposals as described by Buzzfeed. He gives an inaccurate portrayal, essentially describing it as a combination of cuts to Social Security in exchange for increasing military spending. He even threatens to leave the Democratic Party over this:

“If this passed I would have to reevaluate if I belong in the Democratic Party. If this were passed with Democratic votes, I think it would be impossible to be Democrat.”

“I would have to oppose any Democrat that is supportive of this,” Dean added.

In an email to several Democratic consultants Sunday night he forwarded to BuzzFeed, Dean excoriated the White House over the defense spending in Obama’s budget proposal.

“If the businessweek.com article I sent you is correct, it means the Prez proposed chain CPI cutting SS benefits while asking to restore Pentagon spending. He would never get that through either chamber,” Dean wrote. “What the hell are they thinking or is BW wrong?”

Ed Kilgore compared this to the Dean scream (acknowledging that the scream was greatly exaggerated by the media) and points out past criticism of Howard Dean for his previous support for Medicare cuts. This was a topic I researched in great detail back during the 2003-4 primary campaign, ending my support for Dean when the evidence clearly showed he was lying when he denied his previous position on Medicare.

There is no doubt that when Howard Dean supported Medicare cuts it was not because he has a great passion for cutting Medicare, but because he saw that as a politically necessary compromise. The same could be said about Obama’s budget proposal. It is a compromise, and while we would all prefer to see no cuts to Social Security at all, it is not as bad a deal as many are saying.

One major benefit is that it gets rid of most of the cuts from the sequester. Yes, that means that military spending cuts would be restored. It also mean that the cuts to social programs will be preserved. To only point out the change in military spending while ignoring the increases to social spending is not very honest. Obama’s budget would also help preserve Medicare financially, even putting an end to the sustainable growth formula which is contributing to the difficulty of many Medicare patients to find physicians who will accept them.

Being a compromise, there are good and bad aspects. While any cut to Social Security is undesirable, the cuts proposed by Obama are not as severe as many fear. By reducing the cost of living adjustments (by changing how they are calculated), Social Security payments will still go up, but by a smaller amount. In any given year the monetary amount of the difference will be fairly small, well under $100 per year.

There are two major problems with this, and Obama has addressed both. Lower income people who cannot afford any reduction in potential benefits will be hit the hardest, but Obama has supported an adjustment to provide them with greater benefits. As the reduction in calculated cost of living increases is cumulative, this could hurt seniors more as they get older. It is not possible to give an exact dollar amount to this as we don’t know future inflation rates, but one report I heard on NPR estimated that an 85 year old might receive $600 less per year than they would receive without chained CPI. I have also seen projections that this could top $1000 per year after twenty years. However, Obama is also proposing an adjustment starting at age 74 to make up for this cumulative change over time.  These offsets are expected to actually reduce the rate of poverty among the elderly. Robert Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has considerable criticism of the budget plan but does point out:

In an effort to address this problem, the budget includes a series of adjustments and protections for the very old and for people with low incomes.  No set of adjustments can fully shield the very old or the poor, but the Obama package is robust and well designed.  It should prevent an increase in the overall poverty rate among the very old and would shield the beneficiaries of most programs that focus on people at the bottom.

There are benefits to this compromise beyond reversing the cuts in the sequester. If liberals want to pay for social programs, it is necessary to get approval for the spending through a Republican House and a Senate where 40 Republicans can also block Democratic programs. This budget, with all its faults, does give liberals increased taxes on the wealthy, and more money for social spending. This is not an easy accomplishement (and Republicans are showing no signs of going along with this deal).  James Vega, at The Democratic Strategist has a good look at the realities of presidential power these days, explaining why Obama feels he must appease those in the center who see cutting the deficit as a major political goal:

Let’s face it. Every Democratic president has to walk a very fine line in dealing with the business community and the economic elite of this country. That group is not entirely composed of extreme right wing ideologues like the Koch Brothers (although there is a very disturbingly large group who are). Many are relatively pragmatic individuals who are willing to accept a certain range of progressive policies when the political climate of the country overwhelmingly favors them. The majority of American businessmen are not going to go on a John Galt-style “producers strike” and shut down all their banks, offices and factories to protest a modest tax increase nor will they try to foment a military coup because they don’t like Elizabeth Warren.

But on the other hand, any Democratic president absolutely has to maintain a certain working relationship with the business community or face huge obstacles to almost all of his domestic priorities. Had Obama seriously threatened to prosecute substantial sectors of the business and the financial community for their role in the financial crisis when he first took office in 2008, he would not have gotten the stimulus bill, the modest financial regulation bill that he did get or health care reform. There were only a few major business figures who went overboard with hysterical accusations that Obama was out to destroy the entire free enterprise system in 2009, but if he had really come down hard on business and Wall Street that attack would have been picked up and become so widespread in the business world that plenty of Democratic Congress and Senate members would have melted away from supporting Obama’s first term agenda like snowflakes in forest fire…

Now the business guys at the table are not completely unreasonable. A recent opinion studyDemocracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” by Benjamin I. Page and Jason Seawright of Northwestern and Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt, indicates that the “1 percenters” — those with $8 million in net worth – are at least somewhat open to some relatively liberal economic ideas. Most agreed, for example, with improving public infrastructure such as highways, bridges and airports; scientific research; and aid to education. They also agreed that the Social Security system should ensure a minimum standard of living to all contributors, even if some receive benefits exceeding the value of their contribution and they also agreed that people with high incomes actually should pay a larger share of their incomes in taxes than those with low incomes. And they recognized the need for sensible regulations.

But on the other hand, the study also found the following:

When we asked respondents how important they considered each of eleven possible problems facing the United States, budget deficits headed the list. Fully 87 percent of our wealthy respondents said deficits are a “very important” problem facing the country. Only 10 percent said “somewhat important,” and a bare 4 percent said “not very important at all.” The high priority put on this issue was confirmed by responses to an open-ended question about “the most [emphasis added] important problem facing this country today.” One third (32 percent) of all open-ended responses mentioned budget deficits or excessive government spending, far more than mentioned any other issue. Furthermore, at various points in their interviews many respondents spontaneously mentioned “government over-spending.” Unmistakably, deficits were a major concern for most of our wealthy respondents…. [In contrast, unemployment and education] were mentioned as the most important problem by only 11 percent, indicating that they ranked a distant second and third to budget deficits.

So it’s not just the professional deficit scolds like Pete Peterson or the PR shop called “Fix the Debt” who are pushing the deficit fixation. Nor is it just the columnists and editorial writers at the Washington Post. The belief that dealing with the deficit is the most important national issue is pretty much a consensus opinion of America’s wealthy and business elite.

Unfortunately, while economically there is no great need to cut Social Security at this time,  far too many people in both the business elite and in the media are as certain that this is necessary as progressives are opposed. After further discussion, which should be read in its entirety, Vega gives far more rational advice to those who still disagree with Obama’s policies than Howard Dean does:

Obama has made a basic strategic calculation about how far he has to go to propitiate some part of the economic elite that holds tremendous power in American society. Progressives can and should debate his decision and, if they disagree, criticize it on that realistic strategic basis. They should not get sidetracked instead by arguments based on extraneous and essentially irrelevant claims regarding Obama’s flaws of character, defects of personality or inadequate fealty to the ethos and ideals of progressivism.

When all the calculations and projections are done, there still might be strong reasons for liberals to oppose Obama’s compromise. However, a knee jerk opposition to absolutely any cuts in Social Security, without considering the actual numbers and what is received in return, is as irrational as Republicans signing a pledge to never raise taxes. There remains plenty of good reasons to still oppose this plan, but not because absolutely no cuts to Social Security could be considered, even if they include offsets to protect the poorest and oldest seniors. Remember that we are supposedly the reality based community. Look at the facts, and certainly don’t follow Howard Dean’s bogus scream that Obama is taking money away from seniors in order to increase military spending.

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