Why Obama just can't win on Social Security

Conservatives have been clamoring for entitlement cuts. Now that Obama has offered them, a GOP congressman blasts him for a "shocking attack on seniors"

As President Obama leans into the unpopular issue, Republicans push back.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

President Obama's new budget proposal would take the knife to a sacred cow of Democratic politics: Social Security. More specifically, the president wants to tie Social Security benefits to chained CPI, which would reduce spending (and consequently, benefit checks) over the next 10 years by $216 billion, according to CNN Money. (Not sure what chained CPI is? Read our helpful primer.)

Many liberals are furious with Obama. Consider this from Jon Walker at FireDogLake:

The single biggest driving force behind trying to cut your Social Security in Washington is President Obama. At every turn Obama has worked hard to keep the idea alive despite it is a horrible idea that is incredibly unpopular. This is not something Obama is being forced to accept, it is what he has been pushing for. [FireDogLake]

Theoretically, this is something that should please Republican deficit hawks, who have long called for entitlement reforms to help rein in America's out-of-control spending. And so many liberals reacted with disbelief Wednesday when Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, went on CNN to call Obama's budget a "shocking attack on seniors."

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The NRCC followed up by saying that "President Obama should apologize for offering the American people a budget that doesn't balance and hurts seniors."

A sampling of liberal umbrage, from Greg Sargent at The Washington Post:

For one thing, it directly contradicts what GOP leaders themselves said earlier today. Remember, John Boehner and Eric Cantor effectively endorsed Chained CPI by claiming we should proceed with those cuts while not raising taxes. Boehner said Obama "deserves some credit" for embracing it. But now the NRCC chair is calling it an assault on seniors? [Washington Post]

Of course, not all Republicans echoed Walden. Paul Ryan, for one, told the National Review that Obama "should be commended for leaning into an issue that is not popular." Chris Chocola, president of the anti-tax Club for Growth, issued a statement saying: "Greg Walden ought to think about clarifying his remarks on chained CPI, and think about clarifying soon. I'm sure his constituents would like to know his opinion."

Former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough said on his MSNBC talk show Morning Joe that Walden is "absolutely hypocritical."

"We've been busting his chops, the president, for months — put it out there, be responsible," Scarborough said. And "the president … just dips his toe in the water and Greg Walden comes out swinging."

Still, despite the conservative blowback to the NRCC's stance, it seems like Obama can do no right on Social Security, drawing the ire of both conservatives and liberals. But maybe that's the point.

"For now, [the budget] has served its purpose — no one will be able to accuse Mr. Obama of refusing to touch entitlements, and no one can credit Republicans for being at all serious about a deficit-reduction compromise," says The New York Times in an editorial. While Republicans are caught playing politics on cable news, Obama gets to play the long game, sitting above the fray in the Oval Office.

Sometimes, apparently, it pays to lose.

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