More Codes in the Social Security War

WaPo unravels one and misses another

The Washington Post, which at times has acted like the head media cheerleader for the president’s deficit commission, appeared to send a political message in its Social Security analysis Saturday. The paper pointed out that the president was “reviving a scare tactic that Democrats have used before” in his weekly radio address when he charged that “some Republican leaders in Congress” want to privatize Social Security. The paper quoted the president:

“I’d have thought that debate would’ve been put to rest once and for all by the financial crisis we’ve just experienced. …after seeing the wealth people worked a lifetime to earn wiped out in a matter of days, that no one would want to place bets with Social Security on Wall Street”

The Post correctly pointed out that Republican leaders are not pressing for privatization—at least, not directly. But by coming out against privatization, Obama clearly was making sure the public understood he was against the scheme that might jeopardize the bedrock of people’s retirement savings. What we don’t really know is where the president stands on the Social Security questions that are on the table—raising the retirement age from sixty-seven to seventy; raising the amount of wages subject to Social Security payroll taxes; and means testing, which does have the potential to put Social Security on the path toward privatization in the long run, and which unglues the system’s solidarity. If recipients with higher incomes no longer have a stake in the system, why should they support it? They might as well have their own privatized accounts.

William Greider, writing in The Nation earlier this summer, reported that Obama is being coy about his grand bargain. “He ducks questions about his preferences, saying only that ‘everything is on the table,’” Greider wrote, suggesting that Obama’s coziness with Republican conservatives is his Nixon-goes-to-China thing—an attempt to prove his manhood by going against his party’s convictions.

Is this talk about privatization a red herring—a distraction to cover up what the president and others really want? The Post made that point by quoting Michael Steel, a spokesman for Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who accused the president and the Democrats of dredging up old issues that are no longer valid. Steel’s boss supports raising the retirement age.

Last week Social Security celebrated its seventy-fifth birthday, and members of Congress scrambled to send birthday wishes. The Post quoted Michigan Republican Dave Camp, a member of the president’s deficit commission, who said “we should honor Social Security’s history of achievement by securing its future for our children and our grandchildren.” Camp’s solution: “we must protect benefits for seniors, near-retirees, and those who rely on Social Security most.” That’s code, folks, for raising the retirement age for younger workers and means-testing it for all but the poorest Americans. Indeed, Jane Hamsher on her Firedoglake blog says that Camp does not want to cut monthly benefits for current retirees. WaPo didn’t decipher this code for its readers.

The paper did mention a new effort announced last week by The advocacy group said it would demand that every member of Congress running for reelection this fall sign a pledge to oppose cuts to Social Security, such as raising the retirement age. If not, they “should be looking to retire in November.” The Post said, however, that this effort “could make the work of the deficit commission far more difficult,” and pointed out that both Boehner and House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer favor raising the retirement age.

Noticeably absent from the Post story were comments from North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy, an important player in the debate. Pomeroy chairs the Social Security Subcommiteee on the House Ways and Means Committee. In a press conference call last week, he said that any benefit cuts are “completely unacceptable” and should be taken off the table. “Even a phased-in adjustment in the age would change the terms of the deal,” Pomeroy said.

There was no code to decipher in that message.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.