Gene Sperling: “A mix of entitlements and revenues was part of the DNA” of the Sequester “from the start.”

Gene Sperling and Barack Obama

Gene Sperling and Barack Obama

I want to call attention to some rather startling statements in Gene Sperling’s e-mail to Bob Woodward, which I posted earlier. Please note the highlighted sections.

From Gene Sperling to Bob Woodward on Feb. 22, 2013

Bob:

I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim. The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)

I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.

My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.

Gene

Really? Does anyone recall President Obama saying that at the time the sequester was proposed and voted on in 2011? Did President Obama discuss these plans for entitlement cuts during his campaign for re-election? I’ve always suspected he did plan cuts in Social Security, Medicare, but when did he publicly state this? I’ve done a somewhat cursory search, but I can’t find anything.

There is no mention of these agreed-upon cuts in the Wikipedia entry on the Budget Control Act of 2011. There no mention of “entitlement” cuts in this extensive article at The Bipartisan Policy Center. This analysis (pdf) notes that the Supercommittee was authorized to cut Social Security:

The “Super Committee” deficit reduction plan: BCA also creates a new, special joint committee of Congress charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction to avoid any potential sequestration. This “Super Committee” can cut spending (including Social Security and Medicare), raise revenue, or propose a combination of both. If the committee cannot agree on a plan, or Congress fails to approve it, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion will be triggered through sequestration. To assist the Super Committee with its task, Congress also provided for an accelerated review of the Super Committee recommendations, provided that the Super Committee followed specific timelines, as outlined in the text.

But I think it was generally assumed that the Super Committee would not be able to agree on anything, and if they did that the Senate at least would not vote for Social Security cuts.

So now the truth has come out. Certainly no one from the White House has come rushing out to deny that cuts in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are what is supposed to balance any new revenue. A few other bloggers have written about this.

Digby is always alert for any mentions of Obama’s seeming obsession with cutting Social Security, and she didn’t miss this one.

I don’t know that anyone’s ever admitted that in public before or that the president was completely, shall we say, honest when he ran for his second term about that specific definition of “a balanced approach”. I haven’t heard anyone say publicly that the sequester “deal” as far as the White House was concerned was to cut “entitlements” in exchange for new revenues. I wonder how many members of congress were aware of this “deal” when they voted for the sequester? The public certainly wasn’t.

I wish I could understand why it is so important to Barack Obama to cut these vital programs before he leaves office. It seems to be his obsession. But there you have it. It’s not just in the DNA of the sequester, it seems to be in the DNA of this White House.

In this sense, it seems that Sperling and Woodward–and by extension Obama–do “see eye to eye.”

At FDL, John Walker gets right to the point in his headline: Sperling: Obama Wanted Sequester to Force Democrats to Accept Entitlement Cuts.

The way Obama has handled basically every manufactured crisis from the debt ceiling, to the Bush tax cuts expiration, to the sequester has been about trying to force both Democrats and Republicans to embrace his version of a “grand bargain.” While it is clear this has been the driving force behind Obama’s decisions, if you pay close attention to his actions is is rare than an administration official will directly admit this. This is actually what I think it most interesting about the recently leaked email exchange between Bob Woodward and Gene Sperling up on Politico…..

Obama wants to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Obama also wants to raise taxes, but he only wants to do these unpopular things if he can get bipartisan cover to destroy basic democratic accountability. If everyone is to blame than no one is to blame.

What has sometimes been viewed as incompetence on the part of Obama during negotiations is actually Obama trying to weaken Democrats’ hand to “force” them to accept entitlement cuts while being able to blame it on the mean Republicans.

That is why even now Obama isn’t calling for the sequester to be simply repealed or delayed. Obama still wants to use this manufactured crisis to force congressional Democrats to betray their base by adopting Social Security cuts and get Republicans to accept revenue increases.

Finally, thanks to JJ for sending me the link to this piece by Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect: Dear White House, You’ll Regret This.

[Gene Sperling’s] e-mail is pure confirmation that Obama’s position, dating back to at least 2011, has been to try to trade cuts in Social Security and Medicare for new revenues. It confirms that Sperling and his boss have been channeling the likes of Robert Rubin, Pete Peterson, the corporate-sponsored Fix the Debt campaign, et al., who have been promoting exactly this grand bargain. Sperling confirms that the sequester was designed to force exactly such a dismal deal.

But even worse, writes Kuttner, is what the e-mail demonstrations about Sperling’s–and Obama’s–pathetic negotiating skills.

The Woodward-Sperling exchange is far more interesting for what it reveals about Sperling/Obama’s propensity for giving ground on core issues and getting almost nothing in return. I supposed we should be grateful that Sperling is only wrecking the economy, the Democrats, Social Security, and Medicare—and not negotiating nukes with the Ayatollah.

I’ve said ever since I read The Audacity of Hope back in 2007 that Obama wanted to cut Social Security. Actually, he made it clear in the book that he wanted to privatize it, but he must have realized that wasn’t going to happen. It’s time for those of us who care about these issues to start screaming bloody murder again. We need to get on this ASAP. So tell your friends and call your Congress critters.

The floor is open for discussion.


Tuesday Reads: Obama’s Deficit-Reduction Plan, Backsliding Obots, Rev. Wright, and Dr. Doom

Good Morning!! Let’s see what’s happening in the news today.

Well, of course the Obama apologists are claiming that he has suddenly grown a backbone of steel and become the liberal messiah they all dreamed of in 2008. I already told you about Ezra Klein’s delusional column last night. The other usual suspects are also getting leg tingles, and former Obots are starting to backslide.

Greg Sargent has put on his rose-colored glasses and taken a few swigs of LSD-laced Koolaid:

This has to be the clearest sign yet that Obama has taken a very sharp populist turn as he seeks to frame the contrast between the parties heading into 2012. During his remarks this morning, Obama directly responded to Republicans accusing him of “class warfare,” but rather than simply deny the charge, he made the critical point that the act of protecting tax cuts for the rich is itself class warfare, in effect positioning himself as the defender of the middle class against GOP class warriors on behalf of the wealthy.

Wow! I’ll bet it never occurred to anyone that income inequality equals class warfare until Obama figured it out. Amaaaazzzzing!!

A senior administration official tells me that parts of Obama’s “class warfare” broadside were ad-libbed. Here’s the key chunk — and it’s a script that could have been written by just about any card-carrying member of the “professional left:”

Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. There’s no justification for it. It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million…
We’re already hearing the usual defenders of these kinds of loopholes saying, “this is just class warfare.” I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or a teacher is class warfare. I think it’s just the right thing to do. I believe the American middle class, who’ve been pressured relentlesly for decades, believe it’s time that they were fought for as hard as the lobbyists and some lawmakers have fought to protect special treatment for billionaires and big corporations.
Nobody wants to punish success in America … All I’m saying is, that those who have done well, including me, should pay our fair share in taxes to contribute to the nation that made our success possible.

Holy sh*t!! Obama ad libbed? Hope ‘n’ change! Change we can believe in! I guess it’s just me, but I thought that speech sounded kind of weak and defensive. But what do I know?

Booman has an even better rationalization for Obama’s behavior than Beltway Bob Ezra Klein. According to the ever-gullable Booman,

…the president has a lot more credibility now when he takes his ideas to the public and says the the Republicans aren’t interested in compromise. You have to try and fail to get a compromise before that argument has any resonance. It’s not so much 11-Dimensional chess as basic common sense. Everyone’s poll numbers suffered during the summer, but no one’s standing was weakened more the Republicans’. That’s not an accident.

So Obama must have planned this. The man is brilliant!!

Digby says Obama is in campaign mode and that’s why he’s trying to sound strong and determined.

My first thought is that it appears the administration has finally decided that there’s nothing to be gained with exclusively delivering post-partisan pablum. It certainly sounds as though he’s thrown down the gauntlet. Unfortunately, the President appears to want to have two fights going into this election, one over job creation and one over whose plan to cut the deficit is better, which I think is a confusing waste of time. (Focus like a laser beam on jobs and tell the Republicans they’ll have to go through you to get to the safety net and I think people would instinctively understand that he’s on their side.) But that isn’t this president’s style and perhaps it wouldn’t be believable if he did it. So, this is at least a change of tactics, more confrontational in tone, which is his best hope for reelection since it turns out people aren’t really all that impressed that he’s the most reasonable guy in the room if it appears that he gets punk’d every time.

Digby things the proposed Medicare cuts are a loser politically, though–especially for Congress members running for reelection.

Jon Walker at FDL was “pleasantly surprised” that Obama didn’t call for Social Security cuts or “any specific major cuts to Medicare benefits,” but he hasn’t gone back on the Koolaid.

This is a positive development. Having President Obama publicly call for major cuts in Medicare benefits or change in age eligibility would have been terrible for our senior citizens and a total political disaster for the Democratic party. But it is important to remember: simply because the president did not put such cuts on the table doesn’t mean he took these cuts off the table.

President Obama has already privately signaled that in theory he would be willing to support major cuts to Medicare. And he’s hinted he’d be willing to cut Social Security benefits. They were both earlier put the table for a theoretical deal and this speech didn’t take them off the table. There was no veto threat to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits.

Actually, there do seem to be specific proposed cuts to Medicare. Jonathan Cohn breaks down the detail of the President’s deficit reduction proposal in a very technical piece that you can read if you’re interested. According to Cohn,

President Obama’s new deficit reduction plan includes about $320 billion in cuts to government health care programs. Most of the cuts from Medicare and that is sure to get a lot of people’s attention, if not now then in the presidential campaign.

But these reductions are less severe, and less worrisome, than some of the proposals Obama indicated he was willing to support over the summer, while he was negotiating with House Speaker John Boehner. In particular, Obama did not call for increasing the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, as folks like me feared he would.

In fact, the cuts Obama has in mind are more or less consistent with the kind of cuts that you find in the Affordable Care Act: They are reductions designed to change the way Medicare pays for treatment and services, ideally (although not always) in ways that will actually improve the efficiency or quality of care. To the extent they would force individual seniors to pay more, it’d be in the form of higher premiums from wealthy seniors or higher co-pays for treatments likely to be unnecessary or wasteful.

For a reminder of who Obama really is, I’ll turn to Glenn Ford at the Black Agenda Report. His post was written a few days ago–before today’s speech–but I still think he has Obama’s number.

The GOP can count on Obama to offer up Social Security on the alter of austerity, as he has done consistently since January, 2009, while still president-elect. Back in April, he proposed $4 trillion in cuts over 12 years – nearly as draconian as his hand-picked committee – with the focus on the safety net. “By 2025,” warned the apocalyptic and grossly misleading president, “the amount of taxes we currently pay will only be enough to finance our health care programs, Social Security, and the interest we owe on our debt.”

Obama promises that his grab-bag, mostly supply-side and wholly inadequate jobs scheme will largely be “paid for” by cuts that include “modest adjustments [hah!] to health care programs like Medicare and Medicaid.”

Social Security stands to be mortally wounded at Obama’s hand. His second round of cuts in the payroll tax further undermine, not just the program’s trust fund, but its status as a free-standing entity outside of the usual congressional process. Congress will, theoretically, make up the temporary shortfall in payroll taxes through appropriations. But that puts Social Security in the middle of the budget deficit debate, where it does not belong and from which it has been purposely shielded since its origins in President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Through rhetoric and calculated action, Obama has for the past two and a half years been in league with Republicans in falsely conflating Social Security and the federal debt. He is now positioned to knock the program from its protective pedestal.

The Social Security cuts are already taken care of as long as the GOP goes along with extending the payroll tax holiday. The more money Obama can suck out of the Social Security trust fund, the more likely he can “reform” the Social Security into a welfare program or Wall Street ATM.

If Obama succeeds, Social Security will become just another “entitlement” to be mangled in a grand bargain with the GOP, like Medicare and Medicaid. Obama wants to be remembered as the president who brought the Republicans and the right wing of the Democratic Party into harmonious consensus – over the dead carcass of the New Deal. That’s what he means by “Go big!”

Chris Hedges has another excellent article up at Truthdig. It’s an interview with Obama’s former pastor and spiritual adviser: “The Rev. Jeremiah Wright Recalls Obama’s Fall From Grace.” I know not everyone will agree with Hedges’ point of view, but I mostly do. As outlandish as Wright was made to seem in the media, I couldn’t fault much of what I heard him say about America and racism. It’s a lengthy article, but I hope you’ll take a look at it.

One of the things Wright discussed with Hedges was the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington DC. Wright himself raised $200,000 for the project.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing that the country would recognize someone as important as Dr. King,” Wright said when I reached him by phone in Chicago, “and recognize him in a way that raises his likeness in the Mall along with the presidents. He’s not a president like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. But to have him ranked among them in terms of this nation paying attention to the importance of his work, that’s a good thing.”

“I read Maya Angelou’s piece about the way the quote was put on the monument,” Wright said in referring to the editing of a quote by King on the north face of the 30-foot-tall granite statue. The inscription quote reads: “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” But these are not King’s words. They are paraphrased from a sermon he gave in which he said: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.” Angelou said the mangled inscription made King sound “arrogant.”

“I read the explanation as to why we couldn’t include the whole quote,” said Wright, who helped raise $200,000 for the monument. “Kids a hundred years from now, like our pastor who was born three years after King was killed, they’re going to see that and will not get the context. They will not hear the whole speech, and that will be their take-away, which is not a good thing. My bigger problems, however, have to do with all the emphasis on ’63 and ‘I Have a Dream.’ They have swept under the rug the radical justice message that King ended his career repeating over and over and over again, starting with the media coverage of the April 4, 1967, ‘A Time to Break Silence’ message at the Riverside Church [in New York City]. King had a huge emphasis on capitalism, militarism and racism, the three-headed giant. There is no mention of that, no mention of that King, and absolutely no mention of the importance of his work with the poor. After all, he’s at the garbage collectors strike in Memphis, Tenn., when he is assassinated. The whole emphasis on the poor sent him to Memphis. But that gets swept away. It bothers me that we think more about a monument than a movement. He had a movement trying to address poverty. It was for jobs, not I Have a Dream, not Black and White Together, but that gets lost.”

He’s right. The powers that be have worked for years to minimize King’s work to end the Vietnam war as well as his determination to wipe out poverty. It’s interesting that this is the second time King has been misquoted on Obama’s watch.

This post is already too long, so I’ll end with an article by Dr. Doom (Nouriel Roubini): Eight drastic policy measures necessary to prevent global economic collapse. None of them will be popular. The first recommendation is that

we must accept that austerity measures, necessary to avoid a fiscal train wreck, have recessionary effects on output. So, if countries in the Eurozone’s periphery such as Greece or Portugal are forced to undertake fiscal austerity, countries able to provide short-term stimulus should do so and postpone their own austerity efforts. These countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, the core of the Eurozone, and Japan. Infrastructure banks that finance needed public infrastructure should be created as well.

Read the rest and weep. Our current “leaders” aren’t likely to pay any attention.

So sorry if I depressed you with that one. What are you reading and blogging about today?